Ger's Excellent Adventures Wed, 03 Feb 2010 18:28:48 +0000 en Chilling in Chefchaouen Fri, 28 Nov 2008 21:49:36 +0000 ger Photo: Plaza Uta el-Hammam Photo: Blue door Photo: Chefchaouen Photo: Colorful powders

After working in Fes for a week I caught a bus to Chefchaouen way up north in the Rif Mountains. It’s one of the prettiest towns I have ever visited: all the buildings are whitewashed and painted various shades of blue, and its medina is full of narrow winding streets that are fun to explore.

On the way to Chefchaouen I spent six days in Fes, working and getting over whatever illness I picked up in Merzouga. I stayed in a boring slightly more upscale hotel in the newer part of town, and didn’t explore the city much at all, so I don’t have any photos worth showing.

I don’t know if it was my illness, or a few bad experiences here and there or a combination of the two, but after my first couple weeks in Morocco I had become pretty fed up with the whole country, and considered spending the next couple weeks somewhere fun in Europe instead.

While I was in Fes I tried to get over this by staying pretty close to my hotel in a relatively unexciting part of town and eating more Western food than usual. (actually I didn’t eat much at all — I had no appetite, even for stuff I knew would taste really good)

I did visit the medina for a few hours one day, and I liked it a lot: it’s just as interesting as Marrakesh’s, and way more laid back. Fes el Bali (The Old Fes, the oldest and walled part of Fes) is yet another UNESCO World Heritage site, and according to wikipedia is believed to be the largest contiguous carfree urban area in the world by population.

To get to Fes I took an overnight bus from Rissani, planning to try to sleep most of the way and save money on a night of accommodation.

I looked at a couple places to stay in Rissani but decided the whole town is pretty much a hole (which made the overnight bus that much more enticing): in Rissani I was constantly harassed by people wanting to take me to their shop or something; as I was walking to the bus station around 7:30pm one guy even told me I had plenty of time to visit his shop because the bus to Fes left at 8:30pm (uh, no dude, it leaves at 8:00, I already have my ticket, nice try) — I assume after I missed my bus he’d be just as helpful with hotel recommendations.

While another guy was hassling me when I was trying to enjoy a coffee at a cafe, my Mom happened to call which was a great excuse not to talk to him — I should try to remember to pretend my phone is ringing whenever someone else won’t leave me alone. This guy sat there waiting while I talked on the phone for about 10 mins; afterwards I made a point to mention that it was my Mom I was talking to, so he’d see me as a real person with a mother instead of just another tourist to be conned out of his money.

The night bus to Fes was fine — it was relatively empty so I had a double seat to myself, but I wasn’t able to sleep except for half an hour or so, so when I arrived in Fes at 6am I was exhausted. I tried to check in to my hotel early but the night watchman said I’d have to come back at 10, so I walked a few blocks to a cafe that was just opening for the day, for some excellent coffee and croissants.

My laptop was out of juice so I tried to stay awake by watching al-Jazeera which mostly had various African countries’ reactions to the American election results. It was all in Arabic so the only word I understood in the two hours I watched was Obama, but the general gist of the broadcast seemed to be: Africa is stoked. (I also developed a small crush on one of the anchorwomen)

I was so tired I considered hiring a taxi to drive around aimlessly for an hour so I could nap in the back seat, but I tried the hotel again at 8am and they let me in my room, and I happily passed out for a while.

(hmm, I just noticed that most of the above is chronologically confusing. oh well.)

After a few generally productive work days in Fes I hit the road for Chefchaouen. At the bus station I met a French guy named Simon (from Nimes I think); after we bought our tickets we scrambled up the hill behind the bus station to check out the view and wait for our bus.

Photo: Fes

On the bus we met a really friendly young Moroccan guy heading up for a week of backpacking in the Rif Mountains, with a friend. We shared a taxi with them from where the bus let us off into Chefchaouen.

Simon and I decided to share a room at a place one of his friends recommended (Pension Znika), a decent place with a nice view of Chefchaouen, and really cheap after being split two ways — about $6/night each.

Photo: Pension Znika Photo: View

We dropped off our stuff then walked around the town for a bit. We found a bar that serves alcohol, and I had my first drink since arriving in Morocco a couple weeks ago. Alcohol seems pretty hard to find here, though I haven’t been looking. (haven’t missed it at all)

The town was really quiet at night, and in our first few minutes of exploring we were amazed at how beautiful it was — we kept gasping whenever we walked around a new corner.

Photo: Chefchaouen at night Photo: Chefchaouen at night

I spent the next few days relaxing at cafes and wandering around taking pictures.

I really liked Chefchaouen: waaay more relaxed and hassle-free than everywhere else I have been on this trip, lots of fresh mountain air and beautiful views wherever you look.

Photo: Chefchaouen Photo: Chefchaouen Photo: Storefront Photo: Steep street Photo: Chefchaouen Photo: Chefchaouen Photo: Chefchaouen Photo: Blue door Photo: Plaza Uta el-Hammam Photo: Blue door Photo: Chefchaouen

A few places sold these colorful powders, used to dye paint and fabric I think. I kind of wanted to buy some but couldn’t think what I would use it for.

Photo: Storefront Photo: Colorful powders Photo: Colorful powders

I really liked the colors at this intersection:

Photo: Colorful walls

I hung out there for a while waiting for people to come into the frame to make the photo more interesting. I think this is a slight improvement on the above:

Photo: Colorful walls

Lately I have been doing this more and more (including random people in the frame.) I don’t really know why it improves the photo; I guess it helps provide a sense of setting and scale, and gives your eyes something to focus on while you take in the rest of the photo.

I found that the mood of the photo changes a lot depending who’s in the frame, where they are in the frame, and what they’re doing.

These photos are all basically pretty similar but each one feels slightly different when you look at it on its own:

Photo: Colorful walls Photo: Colorful walls Photo: Colorful walls Photo: Colorful walls Photo: Colorful walls Photo: Colorful walls

Really, this place is so picturesque that you could close your eyes, spin around and take a picture with the camera pointed in a random direction and the result would look pretty good.

Photo: Chefchaouen Photo: Whitewashed corridor Photo: Chefchaouen Photo: Kids playing Photo: Kids playing Photo: Chefchaouen Photo: Chefchaouen Photo: Football match Photo: Kasbah Photo: Blue door Photo: Chefchaouen Photo: Kasbah shadow

It’s not quite as squeaky-clean as it looks: the Rif mountains are the heart of Morocco’s marijuana-growing country — three quarters of the cultivatable land east of Chefchaouen are used to grow it — so you can’t go very far without someone offering to sell you weed or hash.

Generally it’s all pretty harmless but some of the guys trying to sell you hash are a bit on the persistent side, and once in a while you see someone wandering around who has clearly smoked a bit more than they should have.

But I have found that a lot of my favorite places have a bit of a seedy side to them; it almost seems that without it, places become too bland and boring, and tend to get overrun with busloads of package tourists.

Photo: Plaza Uta el-Hammam

One night I went out with Simon and a couple cute French girls he knew, to drink mint tea and play cards at this random hole-in-the-wall that turned out to have fantastic lasagna:

Photo: Bar

Due to the language barrier I only understood about half of the rules of the game they taught me, but it was a fun night anyway.

Simon left a day before I did, and the girls left a day later, but I ran into all of them a few days later in Essaouira, on the other side of the country.

There are supposed to be really good trekking opportunities around Chefchaouen, but I was pretty lazy while I was there. That’s one drawback to traveling solo: there’s nobody around to help motivate you to do stuff. (the frenchies invited me along with them once or twice but I was tired of understanding only 20% of what was said)

I did walk up into the hills above the town a couple times to check out the view from above and take pictures at sunset.

Photo: Medina tower Photo: Chefchaouen Photo: Chefchaouen at dusk

Finally, a few more pictures of blue walls and doors if you didn’t get enough earlier:

Photo: Chefchaouen Photo: Chefchaouen Photo: Chefchaouen Photo: Blue door Photo: Chefchaouen Photo: Blue door

After 5 days in Chefchaouen I headed to Essaouira on the Atlantic coast.

More pictures in Chefchaouen, and if you are really bored, Fes.

Wandering around Erg Chebbi Fri, 14 Nov 2008 22:25:54 +0000 ger Photo: Sand dunes Photo: Shadow Photo: Ascending Photo: Camel silhouettes

One of the things I was most looking forward to about visiting Morocco was the chance to get some really cool landscape pictures in the desert. So after spending a day working in Rissani I went back to Merzouga to spend some more time wandering around the sand dunes.

I recently saw some pictures from Sossusvlei, Namibia and immediately thought “I want to go there”. I considered trying to do a combo France/Morocco/Namibia trip, but then I looked at a map and learned that Africa is kinda big. So I decided to save Namibia for another trip, and to try to find some cool sand dunes in Morocco instead.

Shortly after yesterday’s camel trek I became kind of ill; I don’t know if it was something I ate, or a result of being chilly for much of the night we spent in the desert, or what. I won’t get into details, but let’s just say I didn’t plan to stray too far from bathrooms for a while.

I found a place to stay in Merzouga that was really well-reviewed online, and I didn’t learn much about it (like where it was located or if I’d be able to work there) but due to being ill I decided I just wanted to get somewhere comfortable, so I called them and had them pick me up in Rissani.

It’s a beautiful place, built kasbah-style like most of the other places in Merzouga but really nicely built and furnished, and located right at the base of the northernmost part of the dunes.

Photo: Auberge du Sud Photo: Internal Courtyard Photo: Dune view

(can’t believe I didn’t take more pictures of the auberge itself, oops)

My room was one of the coolest rooms I have ever stayed in; the walls looked like they were made out of mud and grass (not sure if they actually were or not, I expect not), and it had various fun details like wooden covers over the electrical outlets and big wooden sliding lightswitches.

Photo: My room Photo: My room Photo: My room Photo: Wooden power outlet Photo: Wooden power outlet Photo: Wooden lightswitch

The accommodation was half room and board (breakfasts and dinners included), which was good because there was nothing else nearby. The meals were excellent, some of the best food I have had here so far, unfortunately I didn’t have much of an appetite.

My first night there I was up with a fever until 4am, and then I slept late the next day but when I got up I felt much better, so I decided to go walk around the dunes for a while.

I left the auberge around 2pm, planning to spend a few hours walking around taking pictures until sunset. That may have been a bit too early, because the desert is boring. Really boring.

This particular section of desert has nothing but big piles of sand and the occasional tuft of grass, and after only a few minutes I was out of photo ideas. Usually I try to find interesting objects to include in the foreground of my pictures, but I couldn’t find much to use here.

Photo: Sand dunes Photo: Sand dunes Photo: Sand dunes Photo: Sand dunes Photo: Sand dunes

So I made some shade with my backpack and had a little siesta, waiting for better light to come just before sunset.

An hour later, still not much was happening.

Photo: Sand dunes Photo: Sand dunes Photo: Sand dunes Photo: Sand dunes Photo: Sand dunes Photo: Sand dunes Photo: Sand dunes

I was getting so bored that I actually turned around and started walking back to the auberge, then reminded myself that the point of this little trek was to take some pictures just before sunset.

Another hour later, I found some shadows to take pictures of…

Photo: Shadow Photo: Shadow Photo: Shadow Photo: Long shadow

Starting around 4:55pm the light got pretty nice:

Photo: Sand dunes Photo: Sand dunes Photo: Sand dunes Photo: Sand dunes Photo: Sand dunes Photo: Sand dunes Photo: Sand dunes Photo: Sand dunes Photo: Sand dunes Photo: Footprints Photo: Ascending Photo: Ascending

By 5:10 it was pretty much done:

Photo: Sand dunes Photo: Sand dunes

On my way back I saw a small caravan headed my way, so I quickly ran around onto the next dune so they’d pass between me and the sun for some nice silhouette shots:

Photo: Camel silhouettes Photo: Camel silhouettes Photo: Camel silhouettes

A few more snapshots on the way back:

Photo: Grass sunset Photo: Sunset

(I think that last one would have been excellent if I had been there 5 mins earlier when there was a bit more light)

That night I had another teleconference, and when I asked the auberge guys how I could get online they said the only way would be for them to 4×4 me to town 30 mins away and pick me up later, for $30. Pretty pricey for a meeting I could easily skip, but I decided to do it — a few extra expenses like that are a small price to pay for the ability to work from places like this.

I had other things I wanted to do in Merzouga, like try skiing and snowboarding on the dunes (supposedly most of the places have gear they will lend out), but due to disappointment with the photo possibilities and difficulty in getting online I decided to move on, and maybe try to find more dunes later in my trip (e.g. at Erg Chigaga.)

Unfortunately due to sleeping in again the next day I missed most of the vehicles that could have given me a ride to civilization; luckily there was an English couple (Chris and Lucy) there with a 4×4 that happened to be going my way in the afternoon, and they kindly offered me a ride — Lucy even insisted on sitting in the back cargo space with their dogs. They were just starting a 6-month trip down western Africa in a 4×4 modified to be kind of a campervan, sounds like a fun trip.

We stopped for a couple pictures on our way across the desert to Rissani:

Photo: Chris and Lucy Photo: Erg Chebbi Photo: Erg Chebbi

In Rissani I worked for a while then caught an overnight bus to Fes.

More pictures from Erg Chebbi…

Camel trekking at Erg Chebbi Thu, 13 Nov 2008 16:18:21 +0000 ger Photo: Camel trek Photo: Camel trek Photo: Camel silhouettes Photo: Berber drummers

Erg Chebbi are a set of sand dunes at the northern tip of the Sahara desert, 30km long and up to 250m high. We did a sunset camel trek to a camp set up in the dunes and spent the night in Berber tents before trekking back out in the morning.

Upon arrival in Merzouga we had a quick round of mint tea, then hopped on our camels for a trek into the dunes.

Riding a camel is about as comfortable as it looks. We had a bit of a late start for our sunset ride, so it got dark soon after we left; that combined with getting jostled around on the camels made for extra challenging picture-taking.

Photo: Camel trek Photo: Camel trek Photo: Camel trek Photo: Camel shadows Photo: Camel trek Photo: Camel trek Photo: Camel trek Photo: Camel trek Photo: Camel silhouettes

We had fun along the way joking around about noises and various other things being emitted by our camels. We also came up with names for each of them. My guy kept making squeaking noises all the way (I blame my heavy backpack), so he was named Squeaky.

Whenever Squeaky got us past a tricky section safely I would pat him on the neck and say nice things to him; I kept wishing I had some kind of treats to give him but I didn’t know what camels eat for treats.

After just over an hour on the camels we arrived at our camp. We hung out in the dinner tent for a while, then went running up and sliding down the dunes.

Photo: Our group

It’s exhausting climbing those things; the sand gets wind-loaded just like snow, and the leeward side is soft and steep, so after every step you sink and slide 90% of the way back to where you were before.

We hung out for a while at the top of one of the dunes checking out the clear night sky and watching for shooting stars. There weren’t that many but I think I saw the best one I have ever seen: really slow, bright, and low on the horizon.

After a while our dinner of various tajines was ready, which we hungrily gobbled down (or at least I did.)

Photo: Dinner Photo: Dinner

Then our guides made a campfire and entertained us by playing drums and singing.

Photo: Campfire Photo: Campfire Photo: Berber drummers Photo: Campfire

It was really cold once the fire died down, so we warmed up by running up and down the dunes some more before turning in for the night.

In the morning we got up at 6am and walked over the dunes to where our camels were parked.

Photo: Our camp Photo: Our camp Photo: Camel trek

I decided to walk back because it would be easier to take pictures, and because riding wasn’t that comfortable. (none of the locals seem to ride them by choice)

So poor Squeaky had to walk back alone. He didn’t squeak on the way back; I think he was sad because I wasn’t riding him.

Photo: Our caravan Photo: My camel

I kind of tailed our caravan, trying to keep up while looking for interesting camera angles.

It was really cool to watch the dunes change color as the sun came up.

Photo: Berber guide Photo: Our caravan Photo: Camel trek Photo: Camel trek Photo: Camel trek Photo: Camel trek Photo: Camel trek Photo: Our caravan Photo: Sand dunes Photo: Camel trek Photo: Sand dunes Photo: Camel trek Photo: Sand dunes Photo: Sand dunes Photo: Camel trek Photo: Sand dunes Photo: Camels Photo: Camel trek Photo: Sand dunes Photo: Sand dune Photo: Sand dune

Just after 7am we were back in Merzouga; we had quick showers and breakfast then hit the road back to Marrakesh.

Photo: Skis Photo: Our group Photo: Our group

After half an hour I said bye to the tour group and jumped out in nearby Rissani; I wanted to spend more time in Merzouga but wasn’t sure I would be able to get online there for my meeting at noon. I found a net cafe in Rissani and spent the day working there before returning to Merzouga for the night.

I miss Squeaky, I wonder what he’s up to now. Back out on another trek? Or maybe just hangin in a city somewhere?

Photo: Squeaky R.I.P.

Squeaky!? Squeaky!! Noooooooooo!

More pictures from our camel trek…

Ait Benhaddou, valleys and gorges Tue, 11 Nov 2008 19:25:10 +0000 ger Photo: Bijoux Fatima Berbere Photo: Ait Benhaddou Photo: Todra Gorge Photo: Snake eye

After Marrakesh I planned to visit Essaouira on the coast but with nothing but rain in the forecast I decided to head for the desert instead, and joined a 4-day sightseeing trip that was leaving from my riad the next day. Our first couple days took us through Ourika Valley, up and over the High Atlas mountains, through Dades Valley and Todra Gorge.

I was really excited to hit Essaouira but I checked the weather forecast the night before leaving and it said 100% chance of rain for the next few days, which didn’t sound like the best time to visit a beach town.

The staff at my riad had offered a 4-day excursion to the desert including an overnight camel trek, so I checked the schedule carefully to make sure I would be able to get online somewhere for a teleconference at noon on Monday, and it seemed doable if I bailed early on the last day of the trip.

So I decided to forfeit the deposit I had put down on my hostel in Essaouira and join the camel trekkers. (as I noted to my coworkers, I was really just hoping to use “my camel broke down” as an excuse for missing a meeting)

I am not a big fan of organized tours, but one thing I’ll never get tired of is the male/female ratio typically on these trips: this one had two couples, then me and eight cute girls. (once Icelandic, the others all American I think)

When I looked at how I wanted to spend my time in Morocco I actually planned to skip a lot of the sights visited on this trip (the High Atlas mountains and various stuff nearby) because I have amazing mountains at home and while I’m here I would rather visit deserts and crazy markets and other stuff I can’t see at home.

But to get to the desert we had to travel up and over the mountains, and the terrain and sights were actually pretty cool — definitely a good way to spend a rainy day. Our itinerary took us from Marrakesh to Ait Oudinar in the Dades Valley on the first day, via Ait Benhaddou.

Photo: Breakfast view Photo: Village Photo: Tizi-n-Tichka Pass

Ait Benhaddou is a ksar (fortified city) thought to have been established in the 11th century to control the caravan route between the Sahara desert and Marrakesh. The ksar contains a number of well-preserved kasbahs (fortified castles), and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It has made appearances in a number of movies including Lawrence of Arabia, Jesus of Nazareth, and Gladiator.

Photo: Ait Benhaddou Photo: Ait Benhaddou

When we arrived this friendly guy came up to see if we wanted to pet his snake.

Photo: Snake eye

We entered through the new city; less than 10 families still live in the old city across the riverbed.

Photo: Ait Benhaddou Photo: Ait Benhaddou Photo: Ait Benhaddou

To gain access to the old city we had to enter through one of the family’s houses, for a small fee. They served us mint tea and almonds in a room that had been used during the filming of Gladiator, and showed us around their house.

Photo: Ait Benhaddou Photo: Ait Benhaddou Photo: Gladiator room Photo: Berber house Photo: Berber house Photo: Berber house Photo: Berber house Photo: Berber house Photo: Berber house Photo: Berber house Photo: Berber house Photo: Gladiator crew pass

Then we poked around for a while on our own. When I was reading about this place I was trying to figure out how much time I would want to spend here (one day or two?); I found the few hours we spent here today was enough. I’m sure there’s more to see than what we did but I think any more than half a day here would be too much. (It’s so hard to tell these things before you get there…)

Photo: Ait Benhaddou Photo: Ait Benhaddou Photo: Ait Benhaddou Photo: Ait Benhaddou Photo: Ait Benhaddou Photo: Ait Benhaddou Photo: Ait Benhaddou Photo: Ait Benhaddou

We had an excellent lunch at a place in the new city, then we were back on the road, stopping for the night in Ait Oudinar.

Photo: Dades gorge Photo: My room

That night we had a group dinner followed by some Berber drumming but in the short break after dinner I was freezing so I made the mistake of crawling in under some blankets in my room and once I was there I didn’t want to leave, so I went to sleep and missed the excitement. (it was really cold there, due to the altitude of the place I guess)

The next day we hit the road after breakfast; it was sunny out but still chilly.

Photo: Auberge Les Gorges du Dades Photo: Frosty car Photo: Camping Ait Oudinar

On the way out of town we stopped to help some kids clear debris that had washed onto the road from a riverbed over night; our driver gave them a few dirham and I pictured them shoveling the rocks back onto the road after we left (that’s what I would do if I were them)

Photo: Road clearing Photo: Road clearing

The morning’s drive was pretty scenic… I’d like to come back through here at my own pace. It would be fun to do a mountain biking trip through here as well. I decided not to try to do one on this trip, for the same reasons stated earlier. (I can do that at home)

Photo: Village Photo: Bijoux Fatima Berbere Photo: Village Photo: Village Photo: Village

By 10am we were at Tinerhir, a few km from Todra Gorge.

Photo: Tinerhir Photo: Tinerhir Photo: Tinerhir Photo: Tinerhir

Todra Gorge is a canyon in the plateau south of the High Atlas mountains, 300m high at its narrowest point. Lonely Planet calls it one of the highlights of the south. It was pretty but not that interesting in my opinion. It looked like a good place to hike and climb; I saw maybe a half-dozen people there with climbing gear.

Photo: Todra Gorge Photo: Todra Gorge Photo: Todra Gorge Photo: Todra Gorge Photo: Todra Gorge Photo: Todra Gorge Photo: Todra Gorge Photo: Hotels

After Todra Gorge we continued east to Erfoud, had lunch, stopped for supplies then continued south to Merzouga where we started our camel trek into the massive sand dunes at Erg Chebbi.

More pictures from today and yesterday…

Marrakesh, Morocco Fri, 07 Nov 2008 22:44:29 +0000 ger Photo: Zellij Photo: Snake charmer Photo: Spice shop Photo: Red walls

Marrakesh is a pretty intense place to start my first trip to Morocco. In addition to the basic culture shock, it always takes me a few days to get used to a new country’s language, currency, food, etc. Marrakesh’s confusing maze of markets and non-stop fake guides trying to take you places you don’t want to go make this process even more tiring than usual.

Fortunately after a few days here I am already feeling pretty comfortable: ignoring or joking with people trying to scam me out of my money, eating and enjoying street food, and gradually getting to know what fair prices are for things. The exchange rate from Canadian dollars to Moroccan dirham is 1 to 6.5; I have always found rates like this (close to 7) are the most difficult to convert in my head, but I figured out a handy trick for this rate: instead of dividing by 6.5, multiply by 1.5 and divide by 10, both of which are pretty easy to do in your head even while trying to maintain a poker face when haggling over prices.

My initial plans for this trip were to take a full month off from work to spend exploring the country at my leisure, but due to slacking too much this summer I fell behind at work and decided to work my first couple weeks here before taking a few off. I spent most of my first few days in Marrakesh working and travel planning, so aside from wandering around a bit I didn’t see very much. (I only took one picture in my first three days here!)

After spending my first couple nights in a hotel in the ville nouvelle (new city) area I moved closer to the action, to La Casa del Sol, an excellent riad (a traditional house set around an internal courtyard) just a few hundred meters from Place Jemaa el-Fna, located within Marrakesh’s medina (old city), which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Place Jemaa el-Fna is a big square in the center of town, a chaotic place full of musicians, storytellers, acrobats and snake charmers as well as outdoor food stalls and carts selling juice, snacks and snail soup.

Photo: Place Jemaa el-Fna Photo: Place Jemaa el-Fna Photo: Place Jemaa el-Fna Photo: Place Jemaa el-Fna Photo: Portable restaurant Photo: Snack cart Photo: Snail soup seller

Unfortunately it sounds much more charming and quaint than it is: I have never been anywhere where tourists are as targeted for handouts as they are here. Any time you take a picture or stop and watch something for more than a few seconds, someone will be right in your face demanding outrageous sums of money.

Now, I am happy to pay for performances that I actually enjoy — when I was in Paris in May I saw these Ukrainian dudes playing and singing in a Metro station, and was so blown away that I left the station to go find a bank machine before returning to show my appreciation by buying a CD.

But these guys insist on being paid large sums of dirham for things that aren’t even performances. One night I stood in the square watching a guy with no shirt run back and forth shouting to rev up the crowd; I kept waiting for something to happen, expecting him to start doing some acrobatics or something. He had been doing nothing but run and yell for the minute or so I was there when some random guy came up to me with a hat, pointing at the “performer” saying “my friend” and insisting I give him something. I tried various ways of communicating no thanks/not yet/I’m just trying to watch/I’m waiting for something to actually happen/if I do give money, it will be directly to the performer and not some random guy who asks for it, but he kept insisting, then finally stood between me and the performer and told me to leave, completely ignoring the 30-50 locals who were also gathered around the circle watching; apparently they’re exempt from having to pay for bogus non-performances.

I know this situation is kind of a natural outcome whenever you have thousands of relatively rich tourists passing through somewhere poorer, and as a tourist/traveler myself I try very hard not to be part of the problem (I hope to write more on that later), but I have been to poorer places than this with way higher ratios of tourists to locals, and never seen anything like this. It’s astonishing.

I’m not the only one to have had this reaction, see e.g. this review on tripadvisor (edited):

We spent a few days in Marrakech and we were very disappointed that they still think that they can get away with this third world rubbish where westerners are treated as gullible idiots with cash to throw at undeserving people who only want your money with no return in the form of service or cultural exchange. Marrakech is not romantic or exotic, its just a dirty badly maintained place full of desperate scroungers offering poorly made rubbish and awful food. Do I need to say “not recommended”. There are lots of poor countries in the world full of nice decent people who want to earn an honest tourist dollar in return for a valuable experience, this is not one of them. Never again!

I’m not quite that sour on the whole Marrakesh experience, but I am disappointed.

The snake charmers were especially bad: groups of guys would sit around on blankets waiting for tourists to walk by; whenever there seemed to be a critical mass of tourists they would uncover a couple snakes and play some annoying repetitive music, with no real connection between the snake charmers, the music, the snakes, or people watching. Meanwhile one or two guys would walk around nearby putting smaller snakes around people’s necks without permission, hoping their friends or family would take pictures so they could demand some money.

Photo: Snake charmer Photo: Snake charmer Photo: Snakes

I decided I couldn’t leave Marrakesh without a few obligatory snake charmer pics, so I asked one of these guys how much for pictures, he said “what you want”, so I snapped the photos above and offered him 10 dirham ($1.50 CAD); he said “no no, 100 dirham” ($15 CAD), then we spent a few minutes arguing about it before I walked away.

Aside from these non-stop tourist traps, Marrakesh is a pretty cool place to visit: my riad is right in the middle of all the action, between Jemaa el-Fna and the souks (markets), a confusing maze of narrow corridors with shops selling leatherware, carpets, metalwork, baskets, jewelry, clothing, spices and herbs.

Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Closed shops Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Souk (market) Photo: Cool bike Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Souk Addadine (metalwork market) Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Red walls Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Souk (market) Photo: Souk (market) Photo: Souk (market) Photo: Carpet market

I escaped the chaos for a bit by visiting the Musée de Marrakech and Ali ben Youssef Medersa (theological college). I’m not really into museums but I did enjoy how peaceful they were compared to everywhere else in the medina, and the tilework was pretty impressive.

Photo: Zellij Photo: Zellij Photo: Musee de Marrakech Photo: Musee de Marrakech Photo: Ali ben Youssef Medersa Photo: Ali ben Youssef Medersa Photo: Zellij

One day when I was wandering around the souks a guy came up and said something about leather tanneries, “today only” and pointed like it was around the corner. He didn’t really seem to care if I followed him or not, so I figured I might as well check it out and kind of walked in that direction. We walked together for a while, he pointed out a few things on the way and I figured I’d have to give him a buck or two afterwards for his guide services. He was pushing a mountain bike along with him so I showed him some pics from Crankworx on my camera and we made a bit of smalltalk along the way in broken English and French.

We ended up walking a lot longer than I expected, maybe 10-15 minutes or so, before he handed me off to another guy who gave me a sprig of mint to hold under my nose (”moroccan air freshener”) while I toured the smelly tannery with him.

He told me a bit about how they treat hides, kept telling me it’s OK to take pictures, etc. At one point he left me inside one of these places and went running out into the street and I figured I was about to get jumped or something and started for the street myself, but he came back a few seconds later.

Photo: Leather tanners Photo: Leather tannery Photo: Leather tannery Photo: Leather tannery Photo: Lime pits

After my tour of the tannery I was dumped into a leather goods shop which didn’t surprise me, and I feigned a bit of interest in the quality of the goods but told the guy there I wasn’t going to buy anything. He immediately lost his friendly/smiley demeanor and led me out onto the street where the tannery guide demanded 200 dirham ($30 CAD) for his services. I laughed and offered him 10 ($1.50), we argued for a while before I gave him the 10 and walked away, then my original guide came and demanded another 200 or so, “for the family” working in the tannery (yes, I’m sure they’d see a lot of that 200); I offered him 10 and said if he expected me to pay 200 he should have told me that before leading me here. He became really aggressive, said “you want problem”, etc.; I asked if he wanted the 10 or not, then gave it to him and walked away while he shouted profanity at me in broken English. Good times.

Photo: Rue de Bab Agnaou Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Bath time Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Olive shops Photo: Olives Photo: Olives Photo: Herboriste des Amis Photo: Marrakesh Photo: Herbs and spices Photo: Herbs Photo: Spice shop Photo: Rahba Kedima Photo: Apothecary stalls Photo: Marrakesh

I think my negative experience in Marrakesh has a lot to do with spending too much time in the medina and not enough exploring other areas of the city. Whenever you have that many tourists gathered somewhere you’re bound to have a lot of people who prey on them as well; I have just never been anywhere where they are so relentless and aggressive.

Once I was taking a little break in the shade reading a guidebook, when a boy about 10 years old came up and offered to help me find something. I said no thanks a bunch of times, he said don’t worry he’s not a guide, showed me his school ID etc., I still said no thanks, he pointed towards Jemaa el-Fna, then sure enough asked for some money for the help he gave that I didn’t want and had refused a number of times.

I keep waiting to meet someone genuinely friendly, to learn more about Moroccan people, but I have yet to meet anyone like that here. I keep giving people the benefit of the doubt, and they keep letting me down.

I wouldn’t recommend starting a trip to Morocco in Marrakesh. If you do start here I would suggest staying somewhere away from the medina and visiting it only for a half-day at a time or something.

Next I plan to visit Essaouira which is supposed to be a chilled out beach town; hope it’s as good as it sounds!

More pictures in Marrakesh…

Roundabout route to Boston Sun, 04 Nov 2007 21:13:23 +0000 ger Whistler isn’t much fun in October and November — too cold and wet to mountain bike, and too warm and dry to ski. I had a week of meetings in Boston in early November so I decided to make a few stops on the way there, and it turned into a month-long trip.

First I stopped in Edmonton to visit my family for a few days, including a birthday party for my brother. Then I headed to Montreal to visit friends and attend Roger and Marjorie’s annual Halloween party, with a side trip to Ottawa to visit other friends and retrieve various things from storage to ship to Whistler.

One of the highlights of being back in these places (aside from being able to see family and friends, of course) is access to Vietnamese food: I have now gone for Vietnamese 8 times in the last couple weeks: twice in Edmonton, twice in Ottawa and four times in Montreal (all four of which were extra large bowls of pho at Pho Bang New York, all of them good to the last drop :)

I really wish someone would open up a Pho place in Whistler. I know rents are expensive but I think it would do pretty well — how hard can it be to make a profit when you’re selling $1 worth of ingredients for $7?

I had planned to take buses from Montreal to/from Boston but the schedules were unusually painful this time, something like 12 hours for a trip I could drive in 5.

So I booked flights on Aeroplan points instead; unfortunately due to Hurricane Noel my convenient 1:30pm Saturday afternoon departure was cancelled and I opted for an 8pm flight instead. Air Canada called me on my way to eat pho on Saturday afternoon, telling me the 8pm flight had been cancelled as well, with no other flights available today. So I had them route me through Toronto, leaving at 6pm tonight.

Our traditional post-pho digestif activity (playing video games) ran a bit late so I didn’t get to the airport until 5:30, causing me to miss my flight to Toronto. But that turned out to be a good thing because all the flights to Boston tonight ended up being cancelled, and the next flight there from Toronto would have been at 7pm tomorrow.

I really wanted to make it to Boston in time for tomorrow’s meeting, because scheduled for tomorrow is an all-day team meeting, which is basically my only opportunity of the year to interact with everyone on the team face to face — it’s usually my favorite day of this series of meetings.

The only way I could think to make it there in time was to fly to New York and take a 4-hr bus from there, so I had Aeroplan put me on a 7:50pm flight to Laguardia. I checked in, went to the gate and mooched some wifi from the Maple Leaf Lounge to check for bus options from New York to Boston. The only workable option seemed to be one of the cheap Chinatown buses leaving at 11pm, which should be easily doable given that my flight arrives at 9:19.

Upon arrival at Laguardia I watched the baggage carousel get emptier and emptier with no sign of my suitcase, then finally gave up and went to the baggage office to arrange for it to be sent to my hotel in Boston. The girl there said my bag was still in Montreal; I asked if it could be sent directly to Boston and she said no because it had to travel the same route I did. So I was supposed to call to arrange for it to be shipped to me after its arrival in New York. I didn’t expect to see it before Tuesday or Wednesday.

Just as I was leaving the baggage office a guy came in with my suitcase, saying one of the straps had been caught in the carousel. Woohoo! No need to wear the same jeans/tshirt/hoodie for the next week…

I asked about ground transportation options to Manhattan; I could take a cab (maybe ~$40?), an express shuttle with a bunch of stops, or public transport (M60 bus and the N train) and walk a few blocks.

(btw, I love New York! I was dreading the thought of flying into the US because of bad experiences with rude staff at LAX and in Boston, but everyone I talked to here has been really nice, and it’s an amazing city in general. I’d love to live here for a while.)

I figured I had plenty of time to make it to Chinatown so I’d take the cheap option, public transport. As I sat on the bus and train watching the minutes tick away (never really sure if I was going the right way), I realized my whole elaborate plan to get to Boston in time was about to be ruined by some unnecessary thriftiness — something I’d be sure to reflect upon as I spent the next seven hours dragging my suitcase around Manhattan killing time before the 6am bus.

Luckily, I arrived at the Fung Wah Bus station at 10:55pm, ran to the ticket window to claim the ticket I had booked online in Montreal, and boarded the bus just in time. (sans food, but fortunately I always have snacks in my pack — tonight’s dinner is almonds and a fruit bar)

This is the fourth close call I’ve had in the past couple weeks: I caught the bus out of Whistler with about 30 seconds to spare, I rented a car in Montreal and drove to my dentist appointment in Ottawa with 5 mins to spare, and returned it a few days later just a few minutes before I would have been charged $60 for an extra day.

I should arrive in Boston around 3am (actually 2am thanks to daylight savings time), early enough to get a few hours of sleep before my meeting starts bright and early tomorrow.

I love it when a plan comes together!

The Gibbon Experience, Bokeo, Laos Wed, 25 Apr 2007 01:50:54 +0000 ger Photo: Hiking out Photo: Zipping through Photo: View from treehouse #3 Photo: Gerald ziplining

The Gibbon Experience is an innovative forest conservation project in northwestern Laos, where visitors spend three days living in treehouses built 40 meters above the ground, reachable only by a network of ziplines and a few short hikes. The lucky ones get to catch glimpses of Black Gibbon apes who live in the forest.

A few months ago in ‘nam I met a guy from Montreal named Liel who said The Gibbon Experience had been one of the highlights of his trip so far, so I put it on my things-I’d-really-like-to-do list.

He had done it months earlier when the road and trails were much wetter so much of the adventure was just getting there — hiking barefoot through thick mud, etc — but after reading more about it online I knew it would be fun whether it was muddy or not.

It takes place in the Bokeo Nature Reserve, a 123000 hectare area in the province of Bokeo, which shares a border with Myanmar and Thailand.

I’ll quote a bit from the Gibbon Experience brochure:

Poaching, logging and slash-and-burn farming are destroying primary forest and its inhabitants in South East Asia. The team at Animo has long been looking for innovative methods to solve this problem.

A concept emerged: with the local people we build tree houses and a network of zip lines which guests use to scour the canopy in search of the elusive Black Gibbon.

Bokeo Nature Reserve is rich in biodiversity: birds, insects, and mammals including bears, tigers, and migrating populations of wild buffalo and elephants.

By taking guests into Bokeo Reserve we raise both awareness of conservation issues, and funds for local agriculture transition and forest guard activities. […]

At present, Lao National Parks have no forest guards for day-to-day protection. Only the forest guards in the Bokeo Nature Reserve receive a salary; fully funded by The Gibbon Experience. They presently monitor one third of the 123,000 hectare reserve.

There were two trip options when I went: the Classic Experience and the Waterfall Experience; the Waterfall option takes you further into the forest and has more required trekking, 2-3 hours/day. I tried to book the Waterfall trip and even planned my travel dates around it since the trips leave on alternating dates, but due to a miscommunication with the office ended up on the Classic. It turned out that all the Waterfall trips were fully booked for weeks by the time I tried to reserve a spot so there’s no way I could have done it anyway.

But it didn’t really matter which trip I was on, because with the Classic Experience I had lots of free time to do all the extra trekking I wanted, including a visit to Treehouse #5 where the Waterfall people stayed. (treehouse #4 was temporarily out of commission, I think due to damage from a recent storm)

Small groups of people travel into the forest together on alternating days; in our group there were two families with a total of five kids aged 4-10 or so, an American/Thai couple, two English girls and me. The families were in treehouse #1, the couple in #2, and I was stuck in #3 with the cute English girls. Treehouse #3 was the best of the three in my opinion, though the others were better for playing on ziplines.

When I imagined the families and kids (many of them blonde) living in treehouses I was instantly reminded of a TV show I watched when I was a kid, Swiss Family Robinson (I probably saw the Canadian version.)

When I later learned that both of these families were Swiss, I nearly burst out laughing. I tried to remember what the show’s title sequence looked like so I could get them to pose for a similar picture, but couldn’t remember much about it.

After watching a video on how to use the ziplines, we were shuttled three hours from the town of Huay Xai on the Thai border to Ban Toup, a small village on the border of the nature reserve. We were joined there by a small monkey and a black bear cub who were both quite cute, and constantly at each other’s throats. They seemed fairly evenly matched now but I wouldn’t give the monkey very good odds once the bear has grown a bit more.

Photo: Rest stop Photo: Monkey and bear Photo: Monkey Photo: The Gibbon Experience

From there we walked for about an hour to a building near treehouse #1 where our meals were prepared, where we were each given a harness to use on the ziplines connecting the treehouses; these are like normal rock climbing harnesses except for an extra little roller/brake contraption and redundant safety rope and carabiner attached to them.

We walked to the first zipline leading to treehouse #1. The kids were taken across by guides on the first few zips but the older ones were allowed to go on their own after a while.

Photo: Kids zipping Photo: Sarah ziplining Photo: Sarah ziplining Photo: Zip lines

We spent the next few days living in treehouses, hiking through the forest and playing around on the ziplines. There are a total of seven ziplines leading to treehouse #3; I think the longest one is about 1 km long.

The treehouses were pretty impressive: each has running water from a nearby spring, there’s a shower and toilet, sinks in the kitchen and bathroom, and all the water is completely safe to drink. The toilet is just a normal squat toilet with nothing underneath it but a 40m drop to the forest floor. I heard there are pigs at treehouse #1 that help clean up the mess; on day 2 when we were eating pork sausages for dinner I remarked on this beautiful circle of life.

Photo: Treehouse #3 bathroom Photo: Treehouse #3 shower Photo: Treehouse #3 toilet Photo: Treehouse #3 kitchen Photo: Treehouse #1 Photo: Treehouse #2 Photo: Treehouse #1 upstairs bedroom Photo: My bed

The beds were quite comfortable, with duvets and thick mosquito nets. The shower looked pretty fun because you could see right down into the forest through a bamboo grate, but I never used it because it and the toilet were constantly swarming with hornets. (except for few quick pees, when I couldn’t resist trying to piss the bees off, heh heh)

At some point within the first hour in the reserve something bit me on the finger (some kind of bug, not the monkey or bear), and my finger started to swell up, and soon the back of my hand did as well. It was really weird: one hand was its usual veiny self and the other had no veins visible and instead looked like a big meaty mitten. I was a bit worried because I had never had an allergic reaction to anything in my life, and I didn’t know how concerned to be about this one, or when or where the swelling would stop.

One of the Swiss ladies on the trip gave me some antihistamine cream and drops, and I had a couple antihistamine tablets in my pack; these all helped reduce the swelling. In the next couple days I had a few more fingers swell up from other bites, along with other small spots on my elbow and foot.

I wonder what kind of bugs these were: they looked kind of like a cross between a mosquito and a fly; fairly small, and easy to kill. I applied repellent regularly but don’t like having much on my hands because I don’t want it to get in my mouth or eyes when eating or wiping sweat off my face.

The views from the treehouses were fantastic, especially at dawn and sunset.

Photo: View from treehouse #3 Photo: View from treehouse #3 Photo: View from treehouse #3 Photo: View from treehouse #3

On the first day the guides told us there was a storm forecast that night, and if it got too windy we would have to evacuate the treehouse to the shelter on ground nearby. We were told to keep our harnesses ready and if they made the call to evacuate, to leave everything behind except our flashlights.

Around 8pm or so a big thunderstorm started, and for an hour or two we watched the lightning show all around us. Unfortunately it was just bright flashes, no cool zigzaggy lightning bolts. We counted the seconds between lightning and thunder and most of the time they were quite far away, 10-20 seconds or so. Once I counted only two seconds; I think that was the closest it got.

The guides were amazingly well-tuned to the weather: they told us to put our harnesses on because they could hear strong winds coming, when all I could hear were crickets and birds. Sure enough a while later it got quite windy, and they correctly predicted other weather events as well. When the lightning was distant enough from the treehouse we got the call to evacuate, “Now we go.”

The girls were pretty freaked out about ziplining away in the middle of a thunderstorm, but I wasn’t worried. The next day we talked about fear (in the context of some spiders that were sharing our treehouse) and I agreed that I didn’t like spiders much but as far as scary activities went, if I was convinced something was safe I had no problem doing it: things like ziplining and rock climbing are made safe by using quality equipment and redundant lines; ziplining when lightning is far away poses no danger so there’s no reason to be afraid. But I was glad they were there because it would have been a boring evacuation otherwise :)

Photo: Treehouse #3 occupants Photo: Ready to evac Photo: Sarah ziplining Photo: Evacuated

We hung out in the shelter for a while and made a note to bring a deck of cards along next time. When the storm seemed to have passed we went back into the treehouse, had a snack of leftover rice from dinner mixed with some sweetened condensed milk, then set up the mosquito nets and went to bed.

The storm started up again and around midnight the guides woke us up and told us to prepare to evacuate again. We put on our harnesses and waited a bit but it never got very windy so we were allowed to go back to bed; we elected to sleep with our harnesses on from that point.

The next morning around 6am we awoke to the sound of tons of forest life; after a while we could hear Gibbons singing as well, a sound I can’t really think how to describe. I recorded a bit of it but won’t include a link here because it might give people less incentive to visit for themselves.

I had planned to get up early to try to go for a guided walk around the forest because dawn was the best time to see animals, but after sleeping only a few hours and taking an antihistamine (a.k.a. sleeping pill) in the middle of the night to reduce the swelling in my hand, I decided to sleep in instead.

We had breakfast from the big plastic box of goodies at our treehouse and each of us ate as much as we could to give us energy to trek and zip around all day; later we learned we would be given a real cooked breakfast at treehouse #1, oops.

One thing that disappointed me about this trip were the guides we had: the marketing info says the trips include “Local guides eager to show you the forest and its inhabitants”, but I would replace “eager” with “reluctantly willing”. I asked a couple times about going for a walk to see animals or going for a guided walk the next morning, but only got confusion and “no animals” as a response.

I think the more experienced guides were assigned to the treehouse with the kids, so the ones we had were fairly new (a couple of them said they had had this job for 3 months), and the main issue was the language barrier between us. I expect the more experienced guides would have done much more in terms of teaching us about the forest, animals, treehouses and the conservation program.

In the afternoon I went for a walk on my own to try to find some critters to photograph, but all I found was a cool red bug, a giant black squirrel that I thought was a Gibbon from the way it was moving through the trees (far away; too quick to photograph), and a couple English birds.

Photo: Wet leaf Photo: Cool red bug Photo: Bamboo Photo: Sarah and Maria

We thought about zipping our way to treehouse #5 to check it out (a Canadian guy volunteering here said it’s really cool), but the only way back was a 2-3 hour hike and after getting back from lunch we didn’t have enough time or energy left to do it. It turned out to be a good thing we didn’t, because a storm came in around 5pm and we would have been right in the middle of the trek back around then.

The three of us sat in the treehouse watching the storm build; around 5:30 when the wind got strong enough to make the treehouse start to creak we decided to evacuate to the shelter nearby. This evacuation wasn’t nearly as scary as last night’s because we still had daylight and it hadn’t started raining yet. When the storm failed to materialize after a while Maria noted it might have been a premature evacuation :)

We gathered some firewood and the guides showed up shortly afterwards with dinner; unfortunately due to a miscommunication between them they had left most of the food behind and brought only the rice. So all we had for dinner was rice, and some bread, pineapple and a toasted rice snack we had taken from the bin at the treehouse. Good thing we had two breakfasts!

The meals we did eat were very good: each of them had white rice with about 3-4 different veggie dishes, all of them excellent. (though the standard way to prepare veggies in SE Asia seems to be to boil them to oblivion; I haven’t had nice crisp steamed vegetables in months. Though I’m glad they’re well-boiled here from a food safety perspective.)

The storm came and went but the guides said we would spend the night in that shelter, and one went to fetch bedding from the treehouse. We applied insect repellent and got tucked in carefully to prevent bites, but after about an hour I still couldn’t sleep due to concern of waking up covered in bites the next day.

Between fear of malaria (I had forgotten to take my malaria meds that day, for the first time in months), the mysterious bug I was allergic to, Sarah lightly snoring on my left and one of the guides getting a bit too cuddly on my right (unintentionally I’m sure) I realized I had no hope of getting any sleep there, so I decided to risk the wrath of the guides and waking the others and zipped back to the treehouse since I knew there was a thick mosquito net and comfy mattress and duvet there with my name on it, and since the weather was completely calm by that point.

As I crawled into bed I was greeted by a couple rat droppings on one of my pillows, which must be the treehouse equivalent of the chocolates you get in fancy hotels. I pushed that pillow aside, inspected the rest of the bed for other goodies and quickly fell asleep in the security of my mosquito net. I heard a rat rooting around and gnawing on stuff in the treehouse but didn’t think he would be likely to try to make his way through the mosquito net.

On day 3 we again awoke to the sound of Gibbons singing; the families staying in treehouse #1 actually spotted a few of them today. Sarah and Maria arrived in the morning after a sleepless night of listening to another rat root around and chew on garbage nearby; they had woken up shortly after I left and wanted to return to the treehouse but didn’t have a flashlight and the guide wouldn’t let them use his or accompany them back to the treehouse. I felt bad about leaving them there but they were both asleep when I left and I expected the guide to bring them back if they wanted to. Maybe he wasn’t awake enough to think clearly. (he apologized the next day)

We spent the morning playing and making goofy videos on the ziplines. Ziplining on its own is a pretty safe and easy activity, but when you add the distraction of video production it becomes somewhat less so. A few times I let my head touch the zipline; I don’t think I ever got visibly burnt by it but Maria ended up with a small mark on her forehead.

Photo: Zipping out Photo: Sarah ziplining Photo: Gerald ziplining Photo: Gerald ziplining

After a great breakfast at treehouse #1 we made our way out of the reserve, stopping to watch the monkey and bear scrap for a while. It was amazingly fun to watch; they’re both so cute and have such different fighting styles: the monkey is really quick and agile, and the bear is slow and clumsy but more powerful. This video always cracks me up.

Photo: Monkey vs bear Photo: Monkey vs bear Photo: Monkey vs bear Photo: Monkey

All in all it was a fantastic experience that I would recommend to anyone, in spite of disappointment with the guides. I expect the guides would be better on the average than the ones we had, and I think they would have done the guided walks if I had pushed them a bit more. (but I shouldn’t have to)

I was really impressed with the general idea: I love creative ideas to problem solving where everyone benefits; in this case it seems that everyone is clearly so much better off that there’s no way the project can fail. I wonder how well it would work elsewhere; does it work here only because the location is exotic and local labor is inexpensive?

Elsewhere in their literature there was a phrase that went something like “It costs less than 1 Euro per hectare to transform an economy based on forest destruction to an economy based on forest conservation.”

Pretty cool.

More photos of The Gibbon Experience…

Buses, boats and treks in Northern Laos Tue, 24 Apr 2007 00:52:15 +0000 ger Photo: Trekking trip Photo: Sneaking a peek Photo: Rice field Photo: Boys posing

After Luang Prabang I spent 10 days travelling around Northern Laos by slow boat and bus. I took a scenic boat ride up to Nong Khiaw, another to Muang Ngoi and back, then a series of buses to Huay Xai on the Thai border with a stop in Luang Nam Tha.

Getting around Northern Laos can be slow and unpredictable so after getting caught up with work in Luang Prabang I took the next two weeks off since I knew I wouldn’t be able to get much work done anyway. This was really the only part of my trip where I was able to do the carefree backpacker thing without worrying about getting online or timing my travel around my work weeks, which was really nice.

Northern Laos is known for its mountainous terrain and trekking opportunities, through villages of various ethnic minorities that make up a large percentage of the population. After seeing pictures of hill tribes in their colorful traditional dress I was excited to do a trek to take pictures and learn about and interact with them.

I did a two day trekking/kayaking trip on my first weekend in Luang Prabang that included stops in Khamu and Hmong villages but it was much different than I had expected — almost nobody in the villages wore any kind of traditional clothing, and when we arrived they usually just stared at us with confused looks on their faces. We didn’t learn anything about them or get to interact with them much at all. I think organized trekking trips would be better elsewhere, e.g. out of Muang Sing further northwest.

Photo: Rest stop Photo: Boys with tire Photo: Bottomless boy Photo: Errand girls

On this trek and throughout my time in Laos the air was constantly thick with smoke from slash-and-burn agriculture, which had to be the worst thing about my visit here. My eyes were constantly burning; in Luang Prabang I would spend hours working offline at Joma just because it was air conditioned, the only clear air I could find in town. The smog was so bad that last month Thailand declared a state of emergency in Chiang Rai, a province nearby. I enjoyed my time in Laos in spite of the smoke but would definitely try to avoid visiting during the dry season in the future.

Photo: Trekking trip Photo: Stream crossing Photo: Trekking trip Photo: Trekking trip

From Luang Prabang I took a slow boat up the Nam Ou to Nong Khiaw; the only other passenger was a Swiss guy. It was a really nice trip, I would recommend it over the 3 hr bus ride even though it took 7 hours. Since we were near the height of the dry season the river was very shallow in places, and our driver did an excellent job navigating through shallow rapids upstream; it was pretty fun to watch, but looked really stressful for him.

At one point the water was so shallow he couldn’t use the engine any more, so a bunch of kids (about 20 of them) came running out to push us up the river for a few minutes; the driver paid them a bit afterwards.

Photo: Shallow water Photo: Gold panners Photo: Kids waving Photo: Water buffalo

When we arrived in Nong Khiaw I told the Swiss guy I planned to stay at a place that had been highly recommended by my fellow trekkers a week ago (Nong Kiau River Side) even though it was more expensive than the others, $25/night for two people.

On the way there we stopped by another place just to check it out and the room looked nice but at $20 it didn’t seem much cheaper than the one highly recommended to me so I told the Swiss guy I was going to continue across the bridge to stay there; he said he was going to check out one more place and would meet me across the bridge later.

So I went on my own to NKRS, asked to see one of the bungalows and was blown away by how nice it was: tons of space, beautiful furnishings, a nice big balcony with a hammock, awesome bed and bathroom, and only $20 for one person.

I grabbed a room, dropped off my stuff and went back across the bridge into town, laughing at my good fortune and thinking “ha ha, silly Swiss guy thinks he knows better than me”; I actually felt bad that I didn’t try harder to convince him to follow me, it was so much better than the other one we had seen.

Photo: Nong Khiaw River Side Photo: Balcony view Photo: Nong Khiaw River Side Photo: Nong Khiaw River Side

I met up with a German couple we had met earlier in town, we tried to find the Swiss guy for a while without success, and as I was raving about the place I found for the same price as the one they had, they corrected my math: the one we had seen earlier for 20000 kip was only $2 USD, not $20. Doh!

Still, I was delighted to pay $20 for the place I had — it was by far the best place I had stayed in the last 4 months.

I had a very enjoyable evening of dinner and drinks with the Germans who were extremely well-travelled and had lots of good stories. We discussed such things as which countries are the best in which to get kidnapped, and what’s the cheapest haircut you ever had. Mine was $2 last week at this place in Luang Prabang; the German guy’s was $0.25 in Uzbekistan. (When he mentioned Uzbekistan I had to resist the urge to launch into a bunch of anti-Uzbek vitriol in my best Borat voice.)

Photo: Nong Khiaw Photo: Boys posing Photo: Nong Khiaw Photo: Boat ticket office info

I would have been happy to have spent several days there but didn’t have many spare days left so the next day I continued up the river by boat to Muang Ngoi, a small town about an hour away.

The only access to Muang Ngoi is by boat, so there are no motor vehicles there at all, and they only have power for a few hours each night from generators.

It has quite a healthy backpacker/guesthouse scene, the main attractions being its laid back atmosphere and do-it-yourself trekking. The accommodation all seemed quite similar: bungalows with balconies and hammocks overlooking the river for about $1-2 each; a few nicer places had private bathrooms and hot water showers for $5 or so. I chose a bungalow at Nicksa’s Place for $1.50/night.

Photo: Muang Ngoi Photo: Bungalows Photo: Main street Photo: My bungalow

The day after I arrived I went for a trek; 30 minutes away from the village are some big caves where people lived while the country was being bombed, and a little bit further were some small villages.

At the first village I ran into a couple I had met on the boat ride the previous day, and when I was at the caves I saw a couple girls from the boat, otherwise I didn’t see any other foreigners all day.

I found the first village pretty boring so planned to head back to Muang Ngoi but on my way back at a fork in the paths I reconsidered: even though the first village was boring I did get one of my favorite pictures there (kids watching TV through a crack in the wall) and I had nothing else to do today so I might as well walk another few hours to see what else I could find.

Photo: Ban Na Photo: Sneaking a peek Photo: Bombshell Photo: Ban Na

A bit later there was an unmarked fork in the path and I took the one that seemed to lead away from where I had just been; this turned out to be the wrong choice, and after wandering across dry rice paddies for a while the path became less and less clear so I gave up and turned around. I had a hard time finding my way back to the main path and ended up hacking my way through some thick brush for a while; when I finally stumbled onto the main trail my legs were all muddy and I was covered in thorns; just then a local guy came walking along, probably laughing at the stupid foreigner as he helped remove thorns from my back.

He made a “sleep” gesture, indicating I should follow him to a guesthouse in the next village, but I already had one back in Muang Ngoi and didn’t want to follow him because I expected he would want money for his guide service. But I did want to go in the same direction, so I walked behind him for a while. When we got there he led me to a guesthouse and I had to try to communicate that I already had a place in Muang Ngoi. He offered to lead me to a waterfall nearby and I tried to figure out how to get rid of him before heading there on my own, when luckily a bunch of his friends came running up and dragged him away to drink lao lao. It seemed from their reaction when they saw him that he had been away for a while, maybe attending school in the city or something.

I explored the village a bit and had started on my way back when a young girl came up and made a frisbee-throwing motion while pointing to the frisbee sticking out of my pack, so I played catch with her for a while, happy to have someone to throw with. We were soon joined by another half-dozen kids, and about 20 of the villagers came to watch for a while. One lady with a child in a sling on her back watched with a smile for a few minutes, finally worked up the nerve to ask if she could try, then threw it once and burst out laughing.

Photo: Signs Photo: Ban Huay Bor Photo: Playing frisbee Photo: Playing frisbee

I played catch with them for about an hour before calling it quits so I could head back before it got dark.

On the way back I checked out the spot where I had taken the wrong fork in the path, and I still think my way looked like the better way to go.

Photo: Paddy shelter Photo: Water buffalo Photo: Dim sun Photo: Paddy shelter

The next day I caught a boat back to Nong Khiaw; I just missed the passenger ferry so I hopped on a cargo boat with a family transporting big sacks of rice etc. I had to pay a bit more than the normal rate, but it was still only $3 and I wouldn’t have to wait around for the next boat or sit knee-to-knee with other passengers.

On the way back we made about 4-5 stops to exchange goods with others on the way (one of the transactions seemed to be conducted in hushed voices at the far end of the boat — opium?)

At first I was a bit annoyed by the delays but then remembered why I was in a hurry to get back to Nong Khiaw, to go take pictures of people down by the river; the slow cargo boat was the perfect place to do so: no need to worry about the camera getting wet or carrying a pack around, or being conspicious while taking pictures; all the cool stuff I wanted to see would just come floating past. (though I only got a couple decent pictures)

I spent another night at Nong Kiau River Side, then took a series of buses to Luang Nam Tha, via Pak Mong and Udomxai.

Throughout most of my trip I rarely booked anything more than a day or two in advance but that all changed once I booked my return flight, because there were a few things I really wanted to do before returning home and time was running out.

So in Nong Khiaw I had gone to the bus station several times to confirm the route and schedule that would get me to Huay Xai in only three days. (maybe a total of 500 km or so; I can do that in three hours in my car at home :)

The morning I left I met a couple cute girls at the bus station who were headed in the same direction, Hanita and Veronica; we got along well and spent the next few days together. The first bus was scheduled to leave at 11am; shortly afterwards the guy selling tickets said there weren’t enough people so we’d either have to pay some exhorbitant fee per passenger or wait until tomorrow. (I forget how much the fee was, maybe $40 or so — I would have paid it since I had stuff booked later but don’t know if they would have)

I complained that I had explicitly asked him about this yesterday, whether the bus goes every day, or only when there are enough people, but he stuck to his story and there wasn’t much we could do about it. I don’t know if that was standard practice for this route, or just an opportunistic money grab.

We asked about alternate routes and he said if we made the short trip to Pak Mong there would be more options there and we might be able to catch a ride to Udomxai, so we did that and were able to make it there and even further, to Luang Nam Tha. And there was a daily bus from there to Huay Xai so I would be able to do the whole trip in only two days instead of three, woohoo.

We spent the day on a variety of local buses, none of them very comfortable. Some people complain bitterly about these trips but we agreed they weren’t that bad… so you’re uncomfortable for a few hours, so what?

Photo: Soup place Photo: Bus station Photo: Bus repair Photo: Hill tribe lady

We ate dinner that night at a place with a hilarious menu featuring delicacies such as:

  • Fish Koy
  • Nonpeer
  • Duch,chichken soup with soup
  • Insipid soup
  • Hard boiled soup
  • Geilled meat with drip water
  • Acidfy pork
  • Yo
  • Noodle pok pok
  • Cucumber pok pok
  • Papaya pok pok
  • Roast giant

In Luang Nam Tha we rented mountain bikes and spent a day exploring the countryside, riding past rice paddies and through about 3-4 small villages.

Photo: Rice field Photo: Rice field Photo: Rice fields Photo: Rice

A few weeks earlier I started looking forward to being back in the Whistler bike park and today I was so excited to be back on a bike that I had tons of energy and was bouncing around on it all day.

At one point I turned off onto a side road to wait for the girls to catch up, and it was apparently the wrong road to turn onto because a guy holding an AK-47 yelled something at me before he realized I was just doing a little loop at the intersection.

It was a really fun day; the people in these villages were friendly, obviously accustomed to tourists passing through but not so many of them that it had become a big tourist trap.

One girl saw us stop for a second and called out “hey, come visit my house” because she wanted to practice her English. We sat and chatted for a while, much of it without really understanding each other but with lots of smiles and friendliness on both sides. She served us each glasses of water of unknown origin when we arrived, which we politely pretended to drink.

Photo: Making rice paper Photo: Rice paper drying Photo: Making rice paper Photo: Girl eating Photo: Friendly girls Photo: Friendly girls Photo: Hanita and Veronica Photo: Boat Landing Guesthouse

After we had gone through the last village on the short loop through the countryside I spotted a guesthouse/restaurant I remembered reading about in my guidebook reputed to be the best in the area (Boat Landing Guesthouse), so we stopped for lunch/dinner and ended up spending hours there enjoying the view and a really nice conversation.

It’s amazing how quickly you bond with people on the road: after just a couple short days together we were chatting away like old friends, much of it lighter stuff like travel, health and nutrition but also a few more personal things like family issues, and hopes and aspirations. Hanita and I were both near the ends of 5-6 month trips so I think we were both in reflective moods.

The next day Veronica continued north to Muang Sing (which sounds like an excellent place to do responsible trekking trips — if I had a few more days I would have liked to have gone), and Hanita and I caught a bus to Huay Xai, then she continued on to Thailand.

That trip was entertaining too but this is way too long already.

More photos:

Luang Prabang, Laos Fri, 20 Apr 2007 22:14:05 +0000 ger Photo: Luang Prabang Photo: Monks Photo: Luang Prabang Photo: Buddha with rice

I flew from Siem Reap to Vientiane, Laos, and spent just one night there before continuing north to Luang Prabang, one of Southeast Asia’s most beautiful and well-preserved cities, a UNESCO world heritage site.

At some point in mid-March I became a bit fed up with living in SE Asia: tired of staying in cheap places, struggling to work, and eating the same food every day. I considered pulling the plug on Cambodia and Laos and spending the rest of my time in New Zealand or Australia but sucked it up and stayed, and I’m glad I did because I really enjoyed both Cambodia and Laos.

Laos (pronounced correctly, it rhymes with ow, or cow — the French added the ’s’ at the end so they would have something there not to pronounce) has the dubious honor of being the most-bombed country in the world. Between 1964 and 1973 the US waged a secret war here as part of their conflict with North Vietnam. They dropped more bombs here than all the bombs that were dropped on Europe by all countries combined during the Second World War: two million tonnes of ordinance, one plane load every eight minutes, 24 hours a day for nine years, one tonne for every person in Laos at the time.

I saw a number of bomb craters here and there, and old bomb shells were visible all over the place, used for garden planters etc. Thirty percent of the bombs dropped here failed to explode, and today they continue to kill or maim hundreds of people every year, often children who think they have found something fun to play with.

I didn’t expect the telecom infrastructure to be any better here than it was in Cambodia where I had struggled to work over agonizingly slow internet connections, so I was pleasantly surprised to find some really fast connections in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. I ended up working from Luang Prabang for about two weeks.

Luang Prabang reminded me a lot of Hoi An, Vietnam, but seemed to be in much better shape; maybe it’s further along in the restoration/preservation process.

Photo: Luang Prabang Photo: Luang Prabang Photo: Luang Prabang Photo: Luang Prabang

It had a great selection of French and French-influenced restaurants and cafes, so I spent a couple weeks eating almost nothing but Western food — lots of lasagna, pizza, and salads. One of my favorite places, Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene had a set menu for $6 that included a big green salad, fresh baguette, choice of lasagna/pizza/spaghetti, fruit salad and espresso or tea, with perfect service in a nice setting. And it was just a couple doors down from the fastest net cafe I could find.

I would begin every day with excellent coffee and fruit/granola/yogurt at Joma, then walk across town to work at my favorite net cafe. All this comfort food quickly helped me get over being sick of Asia. Spending a bit more to stay in nicer places helped as well. Normally I try to avoid Western food but it was so good here I couldn’t resist.

One night after dinner a lady that had been hanging around nearby asked if she could join me at my table; I said OK, though I was wondering what she was after; she had a pretty short skirt on and it seemed strange how she was hanging around outside the restaurant. We chatted for an hour or two; I asked a few questions here and there to try to figure out what she was up to but whenever I asked what she did she was really evasive, making me even more suspicious.

Finally I told her I was going to go work a few more hours and said good night, and she said something to one of the waiters who brought over her business card, and it turned out she was the owner of the guesthouse and restaurant, one of the nicer ones in town at that. I apologized for being so suspicious and standoffish, and explained that most of the friendlier locals I had met on my travels usually ended up trying to sell me something (generally only the case in more touristy places, like here), and it was a shame that I had to treat the genuinely friendly ones with such suspicion.

I went there for dinner again the next night and we chatted some more, and she invited me to come along with her the next day into the countryside to see a new property she was developing, I think it was going to be a new resort or something. I declined since I was still a bit wary and wanted to work instead, but I’m still wondering what she was after, if anything.

In addition to its beautiful colonial French architecture, Luang Prabang has a really cute night market mostly consisting of textiles made by various hill tribes in the area. I was wishing I was better at shopping for this kind of thing. Most women I know would have loved this market.

Photo: Night market Photo: Night market Photo: Night market Photo: Night market

Just when I thought the market couldn’t get any cuter there was an extended power outage one night and the entire thing became lit by candlelight.

Photo: Candlelit night market Photo: Candlelit night market

(the market was beautiful but I had a hard time getting good pictures of it; this is one place where a tripod would have been handy)

Luang Prabang also has dozens of historic temples (wats) but I was pretty watted out by the time I got there, so I spent only minimal time visiting them.

A couple mornings I got up early to watch monks collect alms and to check out the fresh produce market:

Photo: Market Photo: Market Photo: Market Photo: Market

At first I was hesitant to take pictures of the alms collection but I saw some guidelines posted at one of the temples and it sounded OK if you followed a few basic rules: don’t use a flash, don’t get too close, and generally act respectfully.

Photo: Monks collecting alms Photo: Monks Photo: Monks collecting alms Photo: Monks

The day before I left I saw some kids getting a head start on Lao New Year celebrations by hurling water at people driving past (boys targetting girls and vice versa); the girl in the last couple pictures below was extra cute so she was basically knocked off her bike by the flood of water sent her way.

Photo: Bun Pi Mai Lao Photo: Bun Pi Mai Lao Photo: Bun Pi Mai Lao Photo: Bun Pi Mai Lao

More pictures in Luang Prabang…

Temples of Angkor, Cambodia Wed, 28 Mar 2007 12:16:55 +0000 ger Photo: Angkor Wat Photo: Monks Photo: Apsaras Photo: Face

I spent six days exploring the amazing temples of Angkor near Siem Reap, including Angkor Wat, The Bayon, Ta Phrom, Banteay Srei, and several others. I was going to write about each of them as a separate post but that would take forever so this is just a quick summary.

The city of Angkor was the capital of Cambodia’s Khmer empire for a number of centuries starting around 800 AD.

This blurb in my Lonely Planet helped put it into perspective:

The hundreds of temples surviving today are but the sacred skeleton of the vast political, religious and social centre of an empire that stretched from Burma to Vietnam, a city that, at its zenith, boasted a population of one million when London was a scrawny town of 50,000.

Most of these temples were built 800-1000 years ago, from blocks carved and transported from far away — a massive undertaking in itself.

I didn’t know anything about Angkorian history before I came to Cambodia. I have learned a fair bit about it since but can’t possibly do it justice here so I suggest reading about it in wikipedia if you’re interested.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is the most famous of the temples, and the largest religious building in the world. Just the moat surrounding it is two football field lengths across. I visited it several times to take pictures at different times of the day.

Photo: Angkor Wat Photo: Angkor Wat Photo: Gallery Photo: Bas-relief Photo: Apsaras Photo: Stone balusters Photo: Steps Photo: Headless statue Photo: The Churning of the Sea of Milk Photo: Apsaras Photo: Angkor Wat

(the pictures above don’t give a very good idea what the temple is like — I have been trying to avoid taking too many boring wide angle landscape pictures and as a result have very few of them of Angkor Wat, oops)

Ta Phrom

Ta Phrom is another popular temple, made famous in part by its appearance in the movie Tomb Raider in 2001. It has largely been left in the crumbling overgrown state in which it was discovered, with massive silk cotton and strangler fig trees growing all over it and tearing it apart. (Actually, the trees are monitored and somewhat controlled, but it is done in a way to give the impression they are not)

Photo: Silk-cotton tree Photo: Ta Phrom Photo: Ta Phrom Photo: Strangler fig tree Photo: Peering out Photo: Monks Photo: Ta Phrom Photo: Fallen masonry Photo: East exit

On one visit I caught these trees trying to sneak in over the wall:

Photo: Trees invading

“Hey!” I shouted. “Where do you think you’re going?” They froze in their tracks. “Haven’t you trees done enough to this poor temple? Get out of here, leave it alone!”

But they just stood there staring at me.

The Bayon

The Bayon is probably my favorite of the temples at Angkor, due to being very photogenic, fun to explore, and one of the least crowded (but I may have just been lucky with timing.)

It has dozens of towers, each with several enigmatic smiling faces carved into them — usually 4, one in each direction, but sometimes only 2 or 3.

From far away it doesn’t look like much, just a pile of rocks:

Photo: Wide angle Bayon

As you get closer the face-towers start to become clear:

Photo: Face-towers

closer still…

Photo: Face-towers Photo: Framed face-tower Photo: Face-towers Photo: Face-tower Photo: Face

In addition to the face-towers it had a series of confusing enclosures and galleries that were really fun to wander around and explore.

Photo: Gallery Photo: Dancing apsaras

The Bayon also has large sections of bas-reliefs depicting historical events and subjects from Hindu mythology. Unlike Angkor Wat’s these were out in the open making them much easier to photograph due to the direct sunlight:

Photo: Bas-reliefs Photo: Khmers defeating Chams

Banteay Srei

About 20km north of Angkor is Banteay Srei, a temple known for the intricacy, quality and depth of the lintels carved into every surface at the relatively small site. I was glad to have brought my zoom lens with me because much of it was roped off making it difficult to get close — a good idea considering how many stupid tourists I saw rubbing their hands over the bas-reliefs at other sites.

Photo: Banteay Srei Photo: Banteay Srei Photo: Lintel detail Photo: Krisha killing Kamsa

Angkor Thom

In addition to these major sites I visited a number of others in and around the walled city of Angkor Thom.

Photo: Angkor Thom Photo: Angkor Thom Photo: South gate Photo: Seated Buddha Photo: Colorful columns Photo: Lion statues

These are just a few of the hundreds of pictures I took here; see the rest of my photos of the temples of Angkor.

(Also, I have a few very uninteresting pictures from Siem Reap.)

From Siem Reap I continued north, to Laos.