Monday, March 19, 2012

Smoke 'em if you've got 'em

A U.S. colonel visits an Afghan Local Police outpost in Charkusa, Afghanistan, a sort of model village in Kandahar province where Taliban activity has been pushed out to a large degree. Not pictured, the intense smell of hashish emanating from a room full of police officers.
Yep, that's what you're looking at. Just down the road, a different crew of police officers prepared to burn 300 pounds of hash.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Against my better judgment ...

Hazy morning at the engine graveyard of Kabul International Airport.

KANDAHAR - Well, I'm back in Afghanistan, right now enjoying a balmy evening in sunny Kandahar. Not even two weeks in and an Afghan National Army soldier already shot at me by mistake. Should be good times.

I'm just getting started here but have one story out and several more that should be coming soon. Here's a link to the first one:

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Spaghetti Westerner

NONG KIAW, Laos - Glenn was grumpy when he boarded the rickety longtail boat. It was 8:30 a.m. and there was no beer.

"Man, y'all gawt any beer?" he drawled in his slow, high-pitched Alabama twang. "Ah should have bought some for the ride."

He looked around the boat hopefully for a cooler, but the Lao boatmen did not have Glenn's penchant for a.m. drinks. We had seven hours of leisurely, potentially sober jungle river cruising ahead and Glenn looked worried. He was stocked with a good supply of weed, but this evidently was not going to get him through.

In addition to the two boatmen, there were just four solo-traveling vagabonds on the boat, a scruffy international contingent of wanderers. Aside from me, there was Fritz, a 56-year-old bespectacled Swiss-German conspiracy theorist, whose drooping gray goatee, shaved head, and earring looked more Berkeley than Switzerland. Only the sandals with socks indicated his Germanic roots. There was John, the Thai-American sometimes English teacher whose hobbies included smoking grass and saying very little.

And, of course, there was Glenn, the mysterious Southerner whose only allowances about his past were that he once worked in a factory and had rented his house in Alabama to travel. Tall, with a loping gate, fair, mottled skin that had seen far too much sun, and wispy gray hair the same color as his teeth, Glenn looked older than his 56 years and was offended when others pointed this out.

As we puttered up the Nam Ou River, the sputtering engine belched black smoke. One of the boatmen spent the first hour tinkering with the engine until he seemed satisfied it was good enough not to crap out heading upstream over rapids, as we were about to do. It did not inspire confidence.

But Glenn was much more worried about the booze situation and getting a bit twitchy. Finally, I recommended he ask the boatmen if we could make a beer stop. For the small price of buying each a drink, they agreed and we pulled up to what looked like nothing more than a sandy bank in the middle of a jungle. We headed up a small footpath through the undergrowth and eventually came upon a small village of thatch-roofed huts hidden from view by the thick green canopy on the riverbank. There wasn't much in the village, save a few chickens and pigs, but they did have cold beer and we left with a cooler's worth and a smiling Glenn.

"Y'all find any good food in Laos?" he asked. Lao food is in my top 10 in the world. It is nearly impossible to string two bad meals together.

"Glenn, I'm not sure how you couldn't find good food here," I said.

Over the next few days hanging out with Glenn he managed to completely avoid anything Lao. He reveled in ordering spaghetti and meatballs, with burgers and grilled cheese sandwiches as his back-ups. Glenn hated ethnic food almost as much he liked drugs. He ate like a boy 50 years his junior.

After traveling non-stop for nearly a year, Glenn had little good to say about the places he had been. He chased cheap drugs around the world, from the subcontinent through Asia and found little else of interest. After spending four months in India, he came way hating the food and the filth, didn't get along with people, and was beaten down by the heat. After a 10-minute diatribe about the horrors of one of the most fascinating and delicious countries in the world I cut in.

"Well, Glenn, I'm a little confused. Why did you spend four months in a country you seem to despise?"

"Well ... they've got cheap dope."

I waited for other reasons, but quickly realized there was a definitive period after dope.

Then, he added: "Man, ah need to get back to India. Ah really miss hatin' that place."

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

River of slow return

EDITOR'S NOTE: I'm way late on this blog and I've been busy readjusting to the States and, frankly, being lazy the past couple weeks. I've got some actual writing in the works to wrap things up on this blog but, in the meantime, here are some pretty pictures...

NAM OU RIVER, Laos - Everything moves slowly in Laos (except the leeches), especially on the rivers, and I didn't want my seven-hour ride up the Nam Ou River to go any faster. Stretched out in a rickety wooden boat with an even more rickety outboard engine, we puttered upriver toward the village of Nong Kiaw surrounded by pristine jungle, karst cliffs, and peace. More on this ride and the characters I met there later, but for now, this ...

Looks sturdy, right? What could possibly go wrong?

Don't worry, he's not jumping onto a rock - there's water on the other side.

The village of Nong Kiaw, where not much happens, which no one is complaining about.

The genius of Lao engineering, Nong Kiaw.

The carpet-bombing of Laos during America's secret war pushed many people - and fighters - to the vast cave systems in the country's rocky, mountainous terrain. This cave, just outside of Nong Kiaw, was used as a hospital. No doctors on hand these days and fortunately I made it down and back up this ladder unscathed (it's not an optical illusion - it really is that treacherous).

For a country defaced and demoralized by a war still etched in many peoples' memories, most Lao I met were surprisingly free of bitterness. These are the benches, made of two halves of a 500-pound cluster bomb, at the guesthouse where I stayed in Nong Kiaw. When the jovial, middle-aged proprietor asked me where I am from, I told him "America." "Oh," he said with a big grin, laughing and pointing at the bomb benches. "These are from America, too."

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Luang Prabang

LUANG PRABANG, Laos - Luang Prabang is a quiet colonial town at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. It was a great place to do very little for a couple days.

Young monks walk to a temple after collecting alms as children beg for food.

Mekong River, Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang from a hilltop temple.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Death of a bus

Pork buns, breakfast of champions.

Bus with a view.

If we bang on it long enough, it will all magically work out.

Tasty side-of-the-road snacks.

Mountain pattern baldness.

LUANG PRABANG, Laos - If you're in a rush traveling through Laos, chances are your head is about to explode. There's also a good chance your bus engine will follow suit.

I read all the warnings about how slow the road is in Laos, made a point of making no firm plans on no firm date, and boarded a bus last serviced during The Secret War, before it was hit by a cluster bomb. As the flatlands of Ventiane gave way the sparsely populated mountains of the north, we crawled by karst limestone cliffs, verdant jungle, and terraced rice paddies. As we creaked up and around each hairpin curve, I was mesmerized by the view, finding it hard to complain about the slow pace. As I stared dreamily out the window, the boy next to me vomited into a plastic bag.

There are few people in Laos (less than seven million), a country about the same size as neighboring Vietnam, which has a population more than 10 times as big. As we drove through the mountains, the jungle was only occasionally interrupted by a clutch of thatch-roof huts and a vegetable stand here and there. At one point a massive gray snake crossed the road, slithering by in time and disappearing into an unruly tangle of green.

The country does have a bit of a mountain pattern baldness problem, though, with the lush greenery broken up here and there by large patches of brown covered by a blackened, stumpy stubble, the legacy of slash and burn agriculture.

To give us an even better appreciation of the surroundings, something important under the bus melted down about three hours into an 11-hour journey. We pulled over in a tiny village perched high on a mountain and I watched as the attendants raised the bus using a jack that looked about the right size for a Mini and an assortment of oddly-sized pieces of wood. They then very bravely got under the bus to stridently and pointlessly bang away on the undercarriage with a sledgehammer.

I watched chickens and pigs run back and forth noisily, admired the view, and reveled in the fact that I had nowhere to be. The locals pointed and smiled at the only western passenger and we made the most basic small talk in gestures and their very limited English.

An hour later we all pretended the bus was fixed, got back on and headed back into the mountains, bouncing over the cratered road and breaking down again as we hit a junction in a town about 30 minutes away. Fortunately there was a food market, so we all got a snack, many of the Laos chowing down on fertilised duck eggs.

Back on the road again, we made it an astonishing one hour before I heard the ping of metal on concrete and felt a sickening wobble from the back right wheel. We came to an abrupt halt in the middle of nowhere, just after a hairpin curve, but fortunately my legs were already crushed against the seat in front of me, so I avoided smashing my face when the driver slammed on the brakes. One of the attendants went sprinting up the road, returning with a sheepish grin and a piece of the axle in his hand.

Finally, they declared the bus dead and another one came to rescue us, taking us the rest of the way to the sleepy, colonial town of Luang Prabang without further incident.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Bad boy

Sunset on the Mekong, Ventiane.

The Ban Anou night market in Ventiane.

The weirdness of the Buddha Park, about 25 km outside of Ventiane. Created by a religious eccentric, it's a mish-mash of Buddhist and Hindu symbols. When I asked at the local bus station for the bus to the 'Buddha Park' (none of the buses have English signs) the man heard 'Border' instead of 'Buddha' so I ended up at the border from where I had just came the day before. I eventually got on the right bus.

VENTIANE, Laos - We're five hours late by the time the overnight train from Bangkok pulls up to the Lao People's Democratic Republic border. There were many unexplained stops in the middle of rice paddies and at one stage we actually went backwards for 15 minutes.

A border crossing known for hassles and overcharging goes smoothly. An Australian mother and daughter behind me in line are freaking out because they don't have the requisite photo 'required' and I assure them that if they have money, everything is negotiable. Of course they get in, for an extra $1. It's the kind of border crossing that gives me the feeling that you could write 'serial killer' under 'occupation' and still get in for an extra dollar.

One tuk-tuk ride later and I'm in the capital, Ventiane (pronounced wen-chan, but after I thoroughly confuse every Westerner I talk to prounouncing it this way, I drop my pretensions) and in another embassy-visa bind. It's Friday at 3:15 p.m., I have no hotel and the Vietnamese embassy closes at 4 p.m. and doesn't open again until Monday. I do not want to spend four days in the capital, but it's my last chance to get my Vietnam visa, which they don't issue at the border.

Quickly I find a place to stash my stuff, sprint out to find a tuk-tuk and get to the embassy at 3:45 p.m. I wait in line, get to the window with 10 minutes to spare, tell a tired-looking clerk I need a visa and, to my surprise, he asks, 'Same day?'

I look at the non-existent watch on my wrist and back at him in astonishment. 'Today?'

'Yeah, sure.'

I hand over my documents, he goes into a back room, barks out something in harsh Vietnamese, I hear the sweet thud of stamp hitting passport and he comes back in less than five minutes with my visa. Say what you will about communist bureaucracy, I challenge you to find another embassy anywhere that can do that.

After my shocking victory, I treat myself to dinner at a night food market recommended by some fellow travellers. I arrive to a bustling jam of stalls set up nightly in a strip-mall parking lot, with just about anything you could want or be revolted by, including pigs head and chicken beak. Amid the unsavory parts of otherwise delectable animals, though, is some of the most underrated food in Southeast Asia.

For the princely sum of $3, I emerge with heaping plastic bags full of crispy, fatty, duck, lemongrass sausages, spicy ground pork, and rice. I quickly realize I've ordered too much; I eat it all.

Later, while enjoying an evening Beer Lao and perusing my travel guide on a bench outside my hotel, a hooker approaches. 'What you want?' she asks slyly.

'No thanks, just reading my book tonight,' I say, trying to be polite.

She ignores this and sits down next to me.

'What you want?'

'No really, I don't want anything. I just want to read my book.'

She will not take no for answer.

'No, you tell me what you want.'

'Look I'm trying to read my book, so go away. I don't want anything and you're bothering me. Go. Away.'

She gets up, pouting, looks at me disapproving and, wagging her finger at me, says, 'You bad boy. You bad boy,' before shimmying away.

Well, I suppose she got one thing right.