Friday, February 15, 2013

50 Shades of Orange -OR- That Time I Fed Bananas to the Monks

January 18th, 2013
Ashley here

One of the coolest things about Luang Prabang, Laos is being able to see all the monks walking around town.  There's actually a sign up in the main market area that I saw that says something like- 'You're probably really curious about our monks!  People are always asking...where are they going and what are they doing all the time when they're walking around?  The answer is- they're doing the same things as you!  They're going to school or going to see their family or getting some exercise.  They're normal people just like you!'  Uhhhh yeah, normal people except for the fact that every morning at 5am they walk through the streets in lines and collect their one and only meal of the day from old ladies and random people on the street who go out and feed them every morning.  Totally normal. 

All pictures courtesy of the internet.  Picture me squatting next to that girl with a few bunches of bananas on my lap.

A tiny bit of background: There are at least 30 Buddhist temples (wats) in Luang Prabang and real-life-shaved-headed orange clad monks live in all of them (I think).  Every time we would hear someone talking about the monks, it seemed like they were trying to one-up the last person we heard talking about them with their description of their orange robes.  From poppy to pumpkin, turmeric to tangerine, marigold to saffron.  It was like everyone was practicing for their next poetry slam.  

More like 50 shades of hungry.   HOW DO THEY SURVIVE ON ONE MEAL A DAY???

Anyways I feel like this is going to get really long so let me at least try to cut to the point.  We heard that you could get up at the crack of dawn and join the buddhists in feeding the monks, and Kim was kind of like ehhhh that sounds really cool and we should definitely do it, but I think I'd rather just watch.  And I was kind of like 5 in the morning?  That sounds horrific but I really want to feed some monks so fine ok let's do it.  The next day at 5 in the pitch black morning we got up and started walking to the main street in town to figure out how I could take part in this cool tradition.  I'd done some research the day before online and read that people usually fed the monks rice (oops left our rice cookers at home) or sometimes bananas, and so we went in search of a good deal on bananas at the local fruit and veggie street market.  I got a few bunches of them and we headed out to the street to get situated and wait for the monks to come.  

Once we saw the old ladies sitting on their stools with their big bowls full of rice, I started getting nervous.  I didn't have a stool, I didn't know what to expect, and it seemed like the internet had lied to me about the bananas, because no one else had any.  I stood around with Kim for a bit trying to figure out where I should squat and what was going to happen, and then we saw the first line of monks start walking down the street and I just plonked myself down next to a row of old ladies, set my bananas on my lap, and tried to copy what the ladies on my left were doing.  It was going fine for the first 9 or so monks, but then I realized I was running out of bananas and there were still about a million more monks coming down the line.  At about monk number 16 I was out.  Then I didn't know what to do.  I just stared down at the ground and waited for this first line of monks to pass, then ran across the street to Kim who was standing watching, taking it all in like a normal person.  

I felt like they were probably going..."rice, rice, rice, rice, rice, banana? rice, rice rice." Luckily they're monks so they didn't make fun of me.

After my few minutes of getting to at least attempt to partake in this awesome tradition, I stood with Kim and we watched row after row of monks get their food for the day.  Everyone involved was completely silent and the sun started to come up and it really was an amazing sight to see. 


Friday, February 8, 2013

If Anyone Tells Us This Was a Character Building Experience...

January 17, 2013

Ashley is too angry to write this post but she has plenty to say so I will add her commentary in red, which accurately reflects her mood, as she reads over my shoulder.  Hi guys. Ashley here.

We decided to stay in Luang Prabang an extra 4 days so we could meet up with Hannah and Neil. We figured since we were staying longer we should do a tour before they got here.  My bad habits must be rubbing off on Ashley because we signed up for a day long biking/kayaking tour without really thinking it through first. We woke up early to join the one other participant and our "guide" -in the sense he told us what to do then took off at light speed without ever looking back to see if we were still behind him.   

Mistake #1. We assumed this would be a leisurely bike ride through town and some light kayaking since no one bothered to ask us our skill level. We also believed the agent when she said the roads would be flat.  Mistake #1.  Not asking for our money back the second our guide (who BARELY spoke English)  tried to get us on a bike built for Shaquille O'Neil.  It was literally made for a giant person and he was pointing at it trying to get me to start riding it and I was like ummm sir, this bike is WAY TOO BIG.  I can't even get my leg over the top.  And he was just shaking his head trying to shove me onto the bike and I was like DO YOU MAYBE HAVE ONE FOR NORMAL SIZED HUMANS???  And he ended up having to borrow bikes from the rental place across the street because apparently he usually only gives bike tours to Sasquatch and The Rock.

Mistake #2. I am probably the only woman dumb enough to show up for a bike excursion without a sports bra. The fact that our bike had shock absorbers should have sent me running back to the hotel room to get one.  This wasn't a problem for me a) because I was wearing one and b) because I don't really need one.   

The first 30 minutes were a pretty scary ride through town, dodging motorbikes and tuk tuks, up into the quiet suburbs with locals and dogs meandering the streets. Then the flat, paved road ended and turned into hills covered in big gravel that sounded like popcorn popping and slowed us down to about 1 MPH because we thought for sure our front wheels were going to go spinning out of control at any second. Our guide and Clive, the other extremely annoying and awkward gentleman on the tour, would bike ahead, stop and wait for us, then take off as soon as they saw us, repeating this the whole way. The only time they waited was when my chain came off and it was Clive, not our guide, who assisted.

The flattest, most scenic part of the journey.

We managed to survive the Gravel Hill Of Death and turned onto a dirt road which we soon learned was under construction as huge bulldozers and tractors went speeding past us. This part of the journey would have been a lot more enjoyable if it was a true country road, quiet and surrounded by trees and hills. Instead we were surrounded by the jarring sound of jack hammers, the beeping of forklifts backing up and potentially pretty views that were clouded over with a dusty haze.  GUYS YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND.  It was like trying to go for a leisurely bike ride through a monster truck race track while all the trucks on there were trying to run you over and you barely had enough energy to keep pedaling up and down the rocky gravely hills, let alone to dodge tractors and semi trucks filled with rocks and dirt that blew in your eyes.    

We kept going and going and going and going until we reached the turn off to meet up with the main road again. Sometime between the last tour and our tour, the construction team had dug a deep ravine separating our path from where we needed to go.  So through the ravine it was.  Here's where I 100% almost lost it.  Are you picturing this yet?  After hours of riding up and down an awful dirt and gravel road dodging construction vehicles, thinking we must ALMOST be at this river ready to get in the kayaks, the road ends.  And we're looking at a giant ravine filled with quicksand and nasty water.  And our guide can't find a way around it so he decides we have to go through it.  THIS WASN'T IN THE BROCHURE.  

The guide and Clive made it through without many mishaps and then it was my turn. I slowly walked my bike down the steep hill to the muddy, cloudy, nasty looking river that had been created. I pushed my bike over to the other side and then hopped across the river only to sink mid-shin deep in mud. I quickly started to climb out but the mud was pulling me down like quicksand. With a loud slurp I managed to pull my foot out while my flip flop (Mistake #3) was sucked down into the muddy abyss. Determined not to lose a second pair of flip flops only 6 weeks into the trip I grabbed a rock and started digging.  And I grabbed my camera and started taking pictures since I was still on the other side of the ravine holding my bike trying to figure out how the hell I was going to get across without dying.  This I have to admit was simultaneously the most insane part of the trip and the most hilarious for me because the three of them were over there sinking in quicksand, digging around trying to find Kim's other Croc (yes Laura, Croc!) and I was high and dry on the other side trying to capture the moment on my iPhone.  RIP iPhone. :(

Meanwhile Ashley was still on the other side of the river in a state of shock. Our guide decided to be helpful for the first time and picked up the biggest rock his small frame could support and threw it in the river trying to make a path for Ashley to cross, which resulted in him splashing her with a ton of disgusting water. (Here's where it immediately stopped being hilarious for me.)  Before she had time to react, he threw a second rock sending a second wave of nasty water all over her.  I almost threw the bike down and tackled him into the ravine because I was so furious but then I realized I would be even dirtier and oh god it was just so terrible, I'm angry thinking about it again.

By the time Ashley made it across I had given up on finding my shoe. The guide gave a half-hearted effort at digging and then he also gave up. Our situation had gone from bad to worse as I wasn't sure how I was going to continue with only 1 shoe.  And then the nearby backhoe started speeding down the hill, apparently tired of waiting for us. As we scrambled out of his way he dug up a huge pile of mud, threw it against the hill and there was my flip flop, tumbling out of the mess.   Ok wait, again, is everyone picturing this accurately?  We're all standing around in the mud trying to find the shoe and trying not to sink into the quicksand, and out of nowhere the giant bulldozer thing with the scooper thing at the front starts coming at us and we start scrambling out of the way trying not to get run over, getting muddier and muddier with each step, and then it turns out he's actually trying to help.  THE BULLDOZER SAVED THE DAY.  And I had pictures of it!  But now I don't.  

Onward we went to the river. Our guide asked if we wanted helmets FOR KAYAKING NOT FOR BIKE RIDING, thanks guy, and the following conversation occurred.

Me: "Do we need helmets?"
Guide: "Only if you capsize."
Me: "Do you think we'll capsize?"
Guide: "Only if there are rapids."
Me: "Are there rapids?"
Guide: "No." (handing me a broken helmet)
Me: "Are you sure??"
Guide: "Yes."
Me: "There are no rapids at all?"
Guide: "No. Only at the end."

We got in and practiced a little since this was my first time kayaking. The guide told me I should be good enough by the end that I'd survive the rapids.  He then paddled past Ash, splashed her with water, (that's when I screamed he should go eff himself) then took off down the river. I slowly fishtailed my way after everyone, trying to rationalize how my crooked steering could somehow work to my benefit when I reached the rapids that may or may not exist.

We stopped for lunch and had a heart to heart where Ashley and I admitted to each other there was no way either of us wanted to hop back into a kayak for 3 hours and brave the potential rapids. And so we happily thanked our guide, wished him and Clive good luck and took a long boat back to town where we finally got to enjoy some peace and quiet and beautiful countryside.  But not before Kim cheerfully had lunch with Annoying Clive and Terrible Guide laughing and joking and making the best of things because like a married couple- when one of us is upset the other one ends up overcompensating in the other direction so we don't have a collective meltdown.  Don't we make a great team? :)

Kim and Angry Ashley