Friday, January 27, 2012

Assorted local notes

·         The entire area along the sea, from near our house to the world’s ex-tallest flagpole about two miles away has been cleared.  Dozens, no hundreds of buildings razed, in a couple of months. Why? Eurovision. The plan or perhaps whim of someone in charge of welcoming the world to this town. I heard about a woman who now has to live with her relatives because the home that had been her family’s for many years was destroyed, and she given only a small amount of money—not enough to buy another place. The woman,  a very cheerful and good-natured person, does not complain, though her face falls a bit when she says, “It was for the good of the country.” The area cleared will make a wide grand road leading to a new stadium for Eurovision.  And the flag.

·         When the president travels around town it is with a 10 car entourage, and all traffic is stopped. Keeps people employed, stopping all the traffic.

·         Yours truly made a big faux pas referring to the day off last Friday as a “holiday.”  My teacher and my student, along with my Azeri book are quick to say it is Not. It is Martyr’s Day, commemorating the struggle for independence from the Soviet Union. I appreciate the reminder—it is wise to recall the reasons behind our days off.

·         It is an underlying undercurrent that I’m thankfully not too aware of—I was reminded when I looked at the US Embassy’s web page. There were various news stories from 2011: in November a journalist was killed; it (bless them) called for an investigation. Earlier in the year several people were arrested for demonstrating.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Asia Christmas trip

 It was K the travel agent vs. the International Date Line. No, it really can’t be blamed on that… It was the confusion of bringing five people halfway around the world from three places on different days, with a scheduled overnight for Ben in Hong Kong to be able to rendezvous with Margaret, who left San Francisco the 17th but apparently should have left the 16th because B reached destination Kuala Lumpur a full day before she did.  Oh well, Margaret managed very nicely without the escort, and we all made it in due course. 25 hours for K &T, something similar for the US contingent.

Starting in Penang, an island home to a delicious mix of Chinese, Malay and Indian culture, many colonial buildings still in tact and lending charm. Fantastic food.  Ben and Tom and I take what we think will be a short trip to Penang Hill, by bus and funicular railway. Wrong—crowds and traffic take the better part of the day, but it is fun and we get a beautiful view of the island.

Aunt Margaret arrives the next day, and Cam the next, happily connecting in the KL airport.  Below we are at the foot of the very tall Petronas Towers in downtown KL.

And outside KL, a cave temple, and a trip to the Forest Research Institute in a rainforest, where we had hoped to do a canopy walkway but it was closed due to...rain

peeping Tom (sorry so blurry)

On to Thailand, and Khao Sok National Park, about 3 hours’ drive north and east of Phuket. Christmas in a cozy treehouse in the jungle. Mmmmmmm.  We meet up with dear family friend Kevin and his lady Mandie and share an amazing Christmas Eve adventure and Christmas day with them.

Christmas Eve: We arrange to go to Cheow Lan Lake in the park, having seen pictures of it’s incredible scenery, water surrounded by dramatic karst towers. We ride in a van decked out for karaoke (alas, no music) about an hour to the lake, then climb into a long-tail boat for an hour’s journey across the lake, oohing and aahhing at the scenery. We had been told that we can kayak or go to a cave, and we had all opted for kayaking, the cave sounding dull. Our guide has limited English, but it is clear he is disappointed with our choice. When the boat reaches it’s destination, a restaurant with a few huts for overnight stays, it is clear we cannot kayak, as all the boats seem to be in use, so after an awesome Thai meal we follow our friendly guide on a hike to the cave, with a sort of ho hum feeling.

It turns out to be a fine hike along a jungle path, for another hour. He has told us that we can’t wear flipflops, should wear bathing suits, and should leave all excess belongings behind, but nothing has prepared us for what we would encounter. The cave is, of course, dark. It has a rocky floor, and we have four headlamps between the seven of us. That isn’t so bad, but it does add to the air of adventure. So does the sudden plunge—following the guide's warning—into a waist-deep pool close to the entrance of the cave.  Woo hoo. We travel all the way through the cave, which takes about an hour. Near the entrance there are a couple of “rooms” with bats on the ceiling—two different types of bats—but fortunately (for me anyway) we encounter no bats further inside.  On we move, plenty of head room for the most part. Then the guide takes our cameras and files them in his dry bag, and he climbs halfway up a wall onto a narrow ledge, leaving us to navigate a narrow, steep chasm with water rushing below, a real Indian Jones moment. We exclaim and giggle and laugh as we somehow make it through and down, grabbing a rope mounted at ankle height as we descend abruptly into the water at the foot of the chasm. Cam is impressed that his near 59-year old mother has managed. We are all a bit dumbstruck and giddy. Fun!  There is one more neck-deep pool at the end, daylight in view. We then hike and boat and van back to our treehouse haven.

Cam and old friend Kevin, in the treehouse

Christmas in the treehouse
K showing off the iPhone given to her by her boys

Tom utterly surprised to receive coffee

Tom and Cam with Chang beer shirts from Kevin

Christmas Day a visitor:  a viper (maybe)!    K had been hoping for gibbons and their once-familiar sound, but the snake is pretty cool, and there is one troop of smaller monkeys.

We say goodbye to Kevin and Mandie and head for the coast to be ready for a 3-day 2-night boat trip to the Similan Islands.

Southern, coastal Thailand: we stop and consider that all constructed buildings we see in this area are post-2004 tsunami. Stunning to consider the magnitude of the loss of life.  We are told that the elephants knew the wave was coming and broke free of their massive chains to head inland. Afterward they returned, each to their homes, their mahoots, and even helped with the massive cleanup, doing work they wouldn’t have touched normally:  moving concrete rubble and even bodies.

The boat takes 4 ½ hours to reach the islands, and some of the best diving in the world. Ben will dive and hopefully so will Cam, who is not certified but has been diving a number of times. The rest of us will snorkel. The boat is comfortable; we share it with 9 other people, all divers, four diving staff, two deck hands, two cooks YUM!, and the captain. There are 7 cabins, and seating in both sun and shade, and plenty of Dramamine, set out in cups on the table with the salt and pepper. The dive company, Wicked Diving, proves a class act—very well organized and showing real concern for both safety and the environment—bravo.
Everyone on board

Ben's lion fish friend

Snorkeling is amazing. Dozens of different types of fish—schools of Moorish idol, butterflyfish, triggerfish, angelfish, crocodile needlefish—wild colors and shapes, aqua blue, yellow, spotted, pointed. We are intruders in an aquarium, floating about. The water is clear and intensely blue. Cam spots three octopi, two that are fighting and changing colors.  Later, from the boat Ben spots a jumping marlin as we sit at lunch. On a dive, he goes face to face with a huge moray eel and a lion fish with large, pointy spines. Eight dives/snorkels in three days. There should have been nine dives, but for a rule that one cannot fly within 24 hours of diving….he misses the last dive, to the wreck of a tin processing ship :-(. Cam misses diving altogether :-(  :-(, as his shoulder becomes dislocated while pulling on the air tank!  Tom and the divemaster help him to pop it back in while Mom frets.

We leave the ship amazed and contented, the snorkelers among us sporting not only red spots from tiny stinging jellyfish but a remarkable and quite peculiar snorkelers' sunburn from mid-thigh where our wetsuits ended to the ankle, on the back side of the legs only, and on the elbow.


K finds select words of Thai, buried under 27 years of memory cobwebs, emerging. With Cam, shopping for flipflops, the words for “larger size” come to mind. It is only several days later she recalls the more useful “How much does it cost?”.  Oddly, “yes” and “no” remained elusive, while, in Bangkok “traffic jam” and “the weather is hot” came to mind.

Bangkok for New Years’ Eve. We try to go for a drink at the fabled Oriental Hotel on the Chao Phrya River. We are turned away by a doorman who gently points out that not only are our shorts and sandals not up to their dress code, but that the place is full of people who had reserved long in advance…  He suggests another place that turns out to be perfect.  New Years’ Day is Cam’s last before returning to NY and school. He picks a Lebanese restaurant for dinner and we have a most wonderful feast there, stuffing ourselves contentedly with familiar mezze dishes, on a soi (street) in a neighborhood that could have been one of K’s old haunts—she doesn’t recognize a thing in the city really, after 27 years.
T & K, Ben and Margaret leave for Baku, via Colombo and Dubai. Colombo is because we take Sri Lankan Airlines, which treats us to a night in the city because the connecting flight to Dubai doesn’t leave ‘til morning. K had thought they would put us up at a less-than-wonderful place near the airport, but to our surprise they drive us all the way in to downtown, and put us up in the Galadari Hotel right on the seafront. Fabulous buffet dinner and breakfast with food to please Sri Lanka, Japanese, Indian and Western tastes—must have been 30 different cooked dishes.

Then Dubai and a layover long enough for Ben and Margaret to dash into the city on the Metro and see the Burj Khalife building, tallest in the world.

In the aiport loo we trade shorts and sandals for jeans, tights, sweaters and sneakers—and are off to Baku.

Back in T&K’s Baku world: the internet has been cut off, the telephone doesn’t work, and while one can now book train tickets online, we learn that you have to enter the names of the travelers in Russian…  Our snorkeler’s sunburn, has been reduced to massive peeling, and the memory of the incredible fish life we saw now dream-like.
Ben tackling kinkhali
Bread in the train--yum!

Less than 48 hours later we board an overnight train to Tbilisi, Georgia. Our guests are treated to Tom’s 5-star walking tour, and introduced to Georgian culinary delights of kachapuri and kinkhali.

Back in Baku we visit the Qobustan petroglyphs and the curious and loveable burping mud volcanoes. Miraculously T has an unexpected day off, Ben and Margaret's last day with us. The electricity has been cut off in the area of his school and the school is closed for the day... We were incredibly lucky too with the weather all through the trip, missing the rain in Southern Thailand that derailed the scheduled boat trip before ours, remaining mild and windless in Baku, allowing us to enjoy it in comfort—and to get to the volcanoes, which are impassable in the rain.


Sigh. Lovely time with the boys and Margaret.