Sunday, September 4, 2016

Exploring South Vietnam and Cambodia

I think this is an ox. Or maybe it's just a cow.
Now that we've been in China for two weeks, our travels through Vietnam and Cambodia feel like a dream. Carrying only backpacks for a month, we took 10 flights, several boats, innumerable tuk tuks and taxis, and ox. Okay, we didn't really ride the ox, but we saw a lot of them.

We started out in Vietnam with a few days in Saigon (locals don't call it Ho Chi Minh City). My first reaction to Saigon was: where are all these people going? The vast number of vehicles--mostly motorbikes--is an incredible site (and sound). People weave around and through each other in seemingly impossible ways, their bikes stacked high with goods and passengers, defying gravity. No one is moving especially fast. The flow feels organic, albeit crazy, like salmon during the height of spawning season.

This sense of so many people (and goods) on the move has stayed with me throughout our travels in Asia, in both the rural and urban areas.

We traveled up into the mountains to the charming town of Da Lat, where we attended the wedding of my former student, Au-Co, at the groom's home. Incense was burned, prayers said to the ancestors, gifts given, snacks eaten. A hotel reception followed with insanely delicious food, and a musical program featuring Au-Co's mother on the violin. of the many incidents of fantastic Vietnamese food.

Unfortunately after the wedding, I developed a sore throat, that segued into a cold and cough that lasted a couple of weeks. I engaged my "all is well" and "I am a healing machine" mantras, which helped me to relax and not push against the idea of being sick. The cold lingered, but my mind helped me to continue to enjoy our adventure.

Silkworm farmer.
In Da Lat, we met James, an American who has lived in Vietnam for years. He toured us around in his Russian jeep, taking us through beautiful vistas where coffee is grown. We also happened upon a woman on the side of the road who was tending to her silkworms.

Dave and James sampling local coffee.
One of the most amazing things we did was to take a four-day boat trip up the Mekong Delta from Vietnam into Cambodia. The boat had four cabins...but we were the only guests aboard! The crew of five treated us like royalty. This is one reason to travel in Southeast Asia during rainy season: fewer tourists. It didn't rain every day. And when it did, the rain usually fell at night or in the afternoon for short bursts...a relief from the heat and humidity.

Our cabin
What a treat to sit on board watching the rural world roll by. People washing their clothes, soaking their cattle, swimming, or just hanging out at the water's edge waved at us.

During the days, the boat docked and we disembarked with Thuy, our guide. We walked and rode bikes through small towns and countryside amidst vast, green rice fields and people's homes and small businesses. At one point, we stopped to watch a family pull dragon fruit from a tall tree. A woman walked over and with a grin on her face, handed one to me. Then she came back with a second one for Dave.

One of my favorite moments.

We also traveled in one of these small boats down byways of the Delta.
Floating market.
It's amazing to see the ways in which people live along the water.
We spent a few days in Phnom Penh, a vibrant city where we were hounded by tuk tuk drivers who wanted a fare. That's understandable, given their need to make money in a poor country, but it became a bit overwhelming to constantly be called out to and approached when we just wanted to walk around. Eventually, Dave discovered that dealing with them as buddies was a great approach. For instance, there was one guy we saw often, and Dave would joke with him in an Australian accent. Soon, they'd both be cracking up.

Most tuk-tuks are pulled by motorbikes, but we took one short trip
powered by these guys on bikes.

We flew to Siem Reap, an area famous for its World Heritage 10th-12th century temples, the most famous of which is Angkor Wat. It's popular to see the sunrise there, but we wanted to avoid the madhouse crowds (which are thick even during rainy season). So we went at dawn, when most people had already left for breakfast after sunrise, and had the place almost to ourselves.

Around the temples, there are children begging. The NGOs advise not giving them money because that the kids are being used by adults who take the funds. So I brought small toys to give to the children, which were a big hit.

If you go to Siem Reap, don't see just Angkor Wat. It's spectacular--but to us, some of the other temples were more awe-inspiring.
Bayon at Angkor Thom

Ta Prohm
Next we headed to Lonely Beach on a Cambodian island, Koh Rong. We'd been looking forward to it as a quiet place to relax after our jumping-around itinerary--especially after reading about its "paradise status" on Trip Advisor. person's paradise isn't necessarily another's. I wrote about this faulty notion of finding paradise in my memoir...but I guess we have to learn the most important lessons over and over.

This is paradise for me: snuggling with someone's baby.
A Cambodian woman handed her daughter over to me when I was coveting her.
The boat ride to Lonely Beach was three hours...and when we saw the boat--an old fishing boat with bench seats--we almost bailed. Instead, we prayed for calm seas. Our prayers were not answered. Being on a bucking bronco of a boat, with waves splashing over the sides and rain pouring down in sheets, was, to put it mildly, unnerving. Especially since the captain was chain-smoking with huge containers of gasoline at his feet.

I did my best to reframe it as an "adventure." I also thought about all the refugees who have suffered such conditions for days and weeks. In comparison, we were cosy and safe.

Finally calm seas as we approach the island. These women
(from Paris, Barcelona, and Florence) were on holiday together.

Our cabin on Lonely Beach.
In many ways, Lonely Beach is amazing: It's on a strip of isolated beach plopped in a rainforest. The people who run it are wonderful, and the food is delicious. However, the cabins are extremely rustic--which normally wouldn't be a problem, but this meant no AC or even a fan. At night it was so hot and stuffy I felt like I was suffocating beneath the mosquito net.
Rainforest friend on our porch.
I enjoyed hearing all of the creatures loudly singing, croaking, chirping and hissing at night. But because of the rain, the ground was very muddy and slippery, so walking the paths from cabins to lodge, especially at night, was dicey.
We were going to spend a week there, but we left after three days; a storm was approaching, and there was no guarantee we'd be able to get out in time to catch our plane. As evidenced by our wild boat ride there and back, the seas are unpredictable. Perhaps a foray to Koh Rong is best saved for the dry season. That's also, apparently, when the water is crystal-clear blue. In the rainy season, it's brown and gray but still warm enough to swim in.
We ended up spending our last days in Cambodia at Otres Beach in Sihanoukville. For only $19 a night, we had a huge, air-conditioned room at a hotel with a pool, walking distance to the sweet beach that is lined with feet-in-the-sand restaurants.
Fun with Cambodian friends!
Otres Beach
We realized that our "sweet spot" is a 3-star experience. Taking along carry-on backpacks instead of suitcases made the journey easier. However, we aren't backpackers in our twenties and have no interest in staying in hostels--and we don't need (and don't want to pay for) 5-star luxury.

We enjoy our middle-of-the road travel, especially our moments of people-watching, people-connecting, and exploring the marvels of nature and human creations. Vietnam and Cambodia delivered it all.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

7 Things I Learned in June.

1. Relax, already, about the outcome. My memoir was named a finalist for a Bi Book Award. The crazy little elf-on-the-shelf-of-my-mind spun its Linda Blair head around, swearing there was no way I would ever win against books put out by big New York publishers.

Bubble Lady at Washington Square Park
So instead of focusing on the award, I whipped out my frequent flier miles, thrilled to have an excuse to spend a few days in NYC. I decided to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, something I'd always wanted to do. I meandered for two days around the West Village and Chelsea, soaking in all those incredible NYC sights and sounds...and bagels.

By the time of the book event, I was so high on my adventure that just being in the company of all those other writers felt like icing on the cake.

And then...I won! Not just one (Best Memoir) but two (Bi Writer of the Year).

That creepy little elf in my mind had almost talked me out of going. You're not going to win, anyway. Why bother?

But when I decided to focus on the journey rather than the outcome--the outcome was even sweeter. And if I hadn't won, I still would have had a memorable time.

2. "Paella season is a thing." We were lucky to enjoy two paella dinners in two weeks.

Chef Todd's creation

Chef Frank's masterpiece

3. ALWAYS double-check texts before hitting send. Auto-correct changed my playful word "wonkiness" to "long penis." Fortunately, my friend thought it was funny.


4. When Life Gives You Traffic, Make Lemonade. Is Bay Area traffic worse than ever, or is this just us adjusting-to-California-after-three-months-in-Baja? When we had to be in San Rafael on a Friday at 6 p.m., we knew that meant being off the roads by 3 p.m. at the latest.

Dave discovered there's a wild animal rehab facility in San Rafael that's open to the public. So instead of sitting in a wall of traffic, we hung out with hawks and owls and pelicans, and chatted with the knowledgeable people who care for them.

5. Let the locals teach you. We've been to San Francisco a zillion times...and taken lots of walks at Land's End and on Ocean Beach...which we did this time with our friend Nicole.

Nicole showed us something new.
Because she lives in the area, she knew of a hidden spot...
secret stairs
 that took us up to Sutro Heights Park, offering this view:

Worth every step--and we never would have known about it if we hadn't listened to a local.

6. Family isn't biology. I've learned that many times in my life--but it really hit home a few weeks ago. We were invited by my godmother to a gathering of her family. I hadn't seen most of these people in thirty years or more--but I felt like I belonged. It was sweet to hear stories about my parents, to talk to people who fondly remembered them.

Two women who loved my parents: Marcia (my godmother, on the left) and Louise.
Marcia and Dean had three sons. And one of them, Greg, said that when they were kids, the three boys had figured out which three Evans girls they were going to marry!
One of my dad's best friends (Dean)...and the guy I was supposed to marry (Travis).
 I was a child last time I saw all these people--but it felt like coming home.

Esperanza and Greg filled the house with music.

7. The story is never over. We are evolving, changing human beings. For the first time in many years, I went to the Pride parade. I wasn't sure how I'd feel there...but it was amazing. (And I wrote about it here.)

At Pride with my friend Laurie, looking at life through the eyes of love.
So, yes, the story continues. No matter what "it" is, this too shall pass.

Welcome, July. I look forward to what you have to teach.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Driving Baja Again...and Visiting the Wine Region

The drive up Baja from our casita is a study in contrasts: wet and dry, blue and brown, sea and desert, exhausting and exhilarating.

Sea of Cortez
For the second time in two years, we took four days to do it. Yes, it's possible to drive it faster. But spending more than six hours at a time in a car is not our favorite thing. Besides, as I wrote about here, there's a lot of cool stuff to see on the way.

Like last time, our first stop was Loreto. But this time we stayed at Coco Cabanas. Happily, it has a pool--a great antidote to the heat. And floating feels wonderful after all that sitting still. We were the only ones swimming that afternoon.

The next day, the drive was gorgeous, especially between Loreto and Mulege. On the way, we stopped at Bahia de Concepcion for a picnic lunch on the beach.

Just drive right up to the shade palapa and "palapa" yourself down.
The second night we spent in Guerrero Negro, the halfway point, where we met up with friends who had driven twelve hours that day. Together we had an excellent dinner at Malarimmo--a restaurant that makes you feel like you're in old Mexico, with its dark, heavy furniture and suave waiters. Order anything with fresh fish and you won't be disappointed. The hotel rooms are very basic and the least comfortable on the route, but they're cheap.

The drive from Guerrero Negro to San Quintin has some of the roughest road, which for some reason isn't as well maintained--but it boasts amazing desert scenery.

Sublime  (credit)
Before we hit San Quintin, we stopped in at Baja's Best in El Rosario. Except for the Starbuck's logo painted on the wall, the bright yellow building looked like someone's casa...and indeed it was, complete with dogs on the sofas and a telenovela on the TV. The food was as homemade as if you were eating at a friend's house. I could eat that shrimp chile rellano every day for the rest of my life.

Baja's Best pups
At San Quintin, we stayed at the Hotel Jardines. Last time we drove down all kinds of bumpy dirt roads to find it, but this time we drove right to it--thanks to Dave's excellent sense of direction. How someone can go someplace once and then, a year later, find his way back so easily is a mystery to me.

As its name implies, this place is a little Shangri-La of gardens steeped in flowering plants, trees, and so many birds I felt like Snow White. They also grow their own produce to use in the restaurant. The food was a bit gringo-fied but good--better than we remembered from last time.

But what really knocked our socks off was a place we found the next morning. On the main drag about ten miles north of Jardines sits Restaurante Santa Isabel, where Dave was served a savory nopale (cactus) salsa with his bacon and eggs.

Go Warriors!
Our last time crossing the border at Tijuana involved chaos, pandemonium, and delays. So this time we decided to cross at Tecate. It adds miles, but we'd heard it's a much better experience. That's an understatement.

To get to Tecate, you drive on nice roads through the Valle de Guadalupe (Guadalupe Valley), Baja California's wine region. Its beauty rivals the other "California" wine country.

We stopped at just two of the 150 wineries. Each had charming buildings and offered low-priced wine tastings. One included free cheese, bread, and olive oil for dipping. And of course there were dogs.

Most of what we tasted were red blends. We bought some delicious bottles for gifts. The area was so nice that next time we plan to spend a few days there.

(I know some of you are curious about the state of my drinking life, since I've written about that. It's this: I drink very little, because it feels better that way. The tastings were fun, and a glass of wine every few weeks with a meal is about all that interests me.)

The one thing I haven't mentioned that happens on the Baja drive are inspections. In 1,000 miles, our car was stopped seven times. Five times we were waved through. Two times we had to get out of the car while the teenagers-with-guns checked out our car. Once I was asked to zip open my suitcase so the kid could riffle through my silky underthings.

At that time, a guard and Dave engaged in a conversation about the languages they speak. They were laughing as Dave taught him "hello" in Mandarin, German and Japanese.

Crossing the border at Tecate was a miracle. Seriously, people: NO WAIT! Only two other cars crossed with us.

When the border officer started speaking English--and with a southern accent no less--it took my brain a moment to register that, of course, he was an American. We were crossing back in the U.S. after three months in Mexico.

He asked us if we had anything to declare. Four bottles of Baja wine, I offered, having been told that we could bring in two bottles per person. But the California winemakers have an even stronger hold on wine imports than that. The guard said, "Sorry, it's only one bottle per person."

"Oh, that's not what they said at the winery," I said.

"Of course not," he said, pitying me, the naïve rube. After a dramatic pause he added, "But I'll let you go through this time."

So we had enough wine to share with our friends when we hit San Diego.

A sweet evening.
We made it up to Northern California in time attend the celebration of life for my Aunt Ruby who died at age 93. My cousin Bobby, her son, died shortly after she did at age 68. In the midst of these losses, it felt really good to be with family, loving and supporting each other.

Circle of life: my nieces and nephew at my aunt's funeral.
Shortly thereafter we took another road trip: this time to Lake Berryessa, near Napa.

On the road again.
We didn't do any wine tasting there. Instead, we met up with my sister and a bunch of her friends for houseboat shenanigans.
My sister's boat.
So here we are, back in the Bay Area for a little while, staying with our awesome friend Mark, whose home feels like our home-away-from-Baja home.

Perhaps one day we will be flying into Cabo. But for now, there is something special about taking the drive. It's like a slow initiation back into the English-speaking world.

We are here for a few weeks and then off to the next adventure in Asia. Life itself is a study in contrasts.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The winds will carry you.

"I have come to accept the feeling of not knowing where I am going.
And I have trained myself to love it."
Our nomadic lives are about to pull us out of Mexico and into the next adventure.
We leave our Baja home in two days. I feel like I'm suspended in mid-air with no landing in sight.
Technically, we know where we're landing: California, New York, Colorado, Vietnam, Cambodia, and China. Yet there's so much we don't know. We will be on the move, experiencing people and places and cultures new to us.
How different that feels than being rooted here in our casita, enjoying the rhythms of beach life.
These three months, I've loved living next door to my sister and enjoying our long walks with her dogs.
Rama and Dino at San Pedrito beach.
We celebrated Dave's birthday with a bunch of friends from our wonderful community, featuring homemade tortillas and tacos al pastor.
Simon and Paolo from El Poblano, one of Dave's favs, catered for his birthday.
We spent time in La Paz, communing with amigos and whale sharks.
On Omar's boat.
Swimming with this 40-foot beauty was sublime.
We enjoyed spontaneous dance parties and meeting new people, many who dropped in for a few days or weeks, then left to journey on.
Kimberly's birthday at Palapa 1!
We were able to enjoy our home more this time because instead of scrambling around to get it furnished and completed, we could hang out. Writing, editing, reading, playing Scrabble, cooking, enjoying neighbors who dropped by--this was where the action happened.
Casita Once
So here we are, perched on leaving what now feels like home. Goodbye amigos and la playa. Adios fish tacos and ocean air. So long dogs and music everywhere.
When we left Santa Cruz three years ago, I didn't realize we'd be saying goodbye to home and hello to the next thing, again and again.
Before yoga class yesterday, Kylie, the teacher, and I were talking about life's uncertainties--especially in the face of nomadic existence. She said, "You're going to like the poem I brought." During savasana (corpse pose), she read:
We rolled over from savasana and curled onto our sides: reborn from the corpse to the fetus. Death, birth. Goodbye, hello.
And then we stood and spread our arms, our wings. An ocean wind blew through the room, carrying us.