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Homesick? Not Exactly…

When you decide to live overseas for a long period of time it is amazing the things you realize you miss from home the most. Now besides my family and friends there is one significant ‘item’, I suppose you could call it, that I truly wish I could see every day.

So, what is it? It’s simply grass!

See..I LOVE Grass!

Now I know this probably sounds pretty ridiculous but it’s true, I miss those bright green blades of awesomeness tickling between my toes and even the smell of freshly mowed green fields is haunting my daydreams. So if any of you have read any of my previous posts you would know (or if not I’m going to tell you anyway) that I’ve been traveling around Amman, Jordan. So grass isn’t as common as let’s say New Jersey (where I’m originally from) so there stands my dilemma of missing grass. But lucky for me, there was no need to hop on a plane back to Jersey to get my share of green wonder. Nope, just a bus ride away, to Wadi Al Rayan, waited a gorgeous nature reserve filled with rolling hills, towering trees, lovely flowers and plenty of luscious grass filling the trails.

The gorgeous view from the hiking trail.

And The Adventure Begins…

My day started off at 8am where a couple friends and I waited to board the bus to Wadi Al Rayan, and while we didn’t exactly leave on time (which I’m finding quite normal when traveling with Jordanians) sure enough we were on our way to this gorgeous nature reserve. Less than two hours and we were all able to see from a distance the green mountain tops and lush grass trails I would never had imagined would be in such a dry country such as Jordan.

As we’re all admiring the mountain views from the bus window, the excitement caught on for me that it would be just moments away we would be traveling down the hiking trails, and be right within the greener side of Jordan I had yet to experience. So finally came the time and one by one until about all 80 of us were grouped together (I forgot to mention this was a HUGE group) we took off and began discovering all the beauty Jordan had to offer.

On our way back to the buses.

Forty five minutes into the walk and it was lunch time! However, as I mentioned before I was traveling with about 80 others, just about all of which were Jordanian, and lunch turned into a singing fest and story time. Some even brought their Hookahs (I’m still trying to figure out how they were able to carry them as they were hiking, but I suppose that’s just another addition to my American to Arabian culture confusion).  Lunch wasn’t exactly as I had expected, but all in all a great experience and I was able to admire the greenery a little longer, so a win-win for me.

The walk back turned into experiencing some of the most amazing scenery I had ever seen, and I even caught a glimpse of a pretty intense cave. I must say my trip to Wadi Al Rayan is by far one of the best trips I’ve been on since coming here, while it was simple to say the least, this was a major eye-opener that Jordan is not just your everyday desert country and has so much more to offer.

The big group of people I traveled with!

I’ve also recently joined the IWAA, International Women’s Association of Amman, where I have been introduced to plenty of other ‘green’ trips that I can’t wait to tag along to. So I can assure you this will not be the last post about the beautiful green grass that can be found in Jordan. Because like I said earlier, I miss me some grass!

Have any of you ever miss something kind of random from back home while you were traveling?

A small sampan

Maybe it was from the beer and rice wine cocktail or the exhausting trip to various places of interests along the Mekong or the fear of the unknown or the 45-minute shower that got me sleeping like a log. It may have well been all of these that gave me the most comfortable 8 hours of sleep, considering that we practically slept in an over-sized wooden crate! Honestly, it wasn’t bad at all except for the insect bites that I considered battle scars the morning after our Vietnam home stay family adventure.

At 6am I was up and about getting ready for the second day of our Mekong river run. We had a light breakfast of fresh baguette and coffee, packed our stuff and boarded the tiny motorized sampan on our way to the rendezvous point with the rest of the group. This time I felt more at ease, initiated from the previous day, that the sampan  started to feel like a gondola gliding through the romantic waterways of Venice. The river paths started to widen as we lightly sped through the innards of the Mekong to make our way back to the pier. But as we neared the dock I noticed that the sampan was not slowing down. Thao seemed to have no intention of stopping and a steadily, escalating sense of foreboding emerged. I remained calm.

Going to the Market

The first change I noticed was my vision turned to sepia. I looked down and I noticed that my trusty Rider rubber slippers turned into a dark brown suede Church Ryder III. My cream colored Guess cargo shorts started to tighten and lengthen to become a Levi’s 306 STA-Prest tapered slacks as my blue cotton singlet started to accentuate my well defined pecs it grew sleeves and started to feel like an all cotton Sunspel shirt. This time my hair did not grow long, as I was expecting Lara to surface again, however, there was that familiar tingling sensation on my lips from another permanent pout. I looked at my reflection on the water and I saw a familiar face wearing Persol style 2244-S sunglasses in brown lenses, no wonder the sepia texture of this hallucination! My throat started to itch and craved for a Vesper Martini.

Can Tho Floating Market

I cleared my throat to ask Thao why we passed the pier, in my noticeably British twang. He did not reply and I am starting to get worried but maintained a composed pouty look. The river started to become even wider and deeper. There were bigger sampans all around us loaded with all sorts of fruits, coffee, food, and tourists. Some sampans looked suspicious though as they were bigger than the others and did not have any goods on board.

Our sampan was making its way to one of these suspicious ones and I got ready. As we moved closer, 2 guys appeared from the larger sampan, carrying ropes and they seem to be getting ready to haul us in. Even with my sunglasses the glare of the sun coming from behind the men pierced my eyes, blinding me momentarily, that my last vision was these guys throwing the ropes towards us and I swear it felt like we were being reeled in like a freshly caught elephant ear fish. This is it, we were being kidnapped for ransom or maybe to extract some useful information.

I looked away to try to shake the momentary blindness. When my vision restored I was surprised to find that the

Suspicious?

suspicious boat was no longer in front of us. Was it part of my hallucination? What emerged was another boat loaded with tourists and I saw another familiar figure, a Vietnamese guy in pink short sleeved polo shirt, it was Trung the tour guide. It turned out that our rendezvous point with the rest of the group was in the middle of the river. This was really cool! Our sampan glided right next to the bigger tourist boat as we were assisted aboard. Even the other tourists cheered, marveling at the coordination of the pick up. We said our goodbyes and gratitude to Thao as we headed to the floating market of Can Tho and I switched back to normal.

The floating market of Can Tho is quite interesting. Sampans of various sizes were loaded with all kinds of goodies, mainly fruits and all sorts of edible stuff – coffee, bread, rice cakes, etc. We bought pineapples, which were peeled very skillfully right in front of us, and while they lack in size they certainly makeup for the perfect mix of tangy, sweet and juicy flavor. I had a cup of iced coffee and thought about the great things that happened to us on this trip.

We were exposed to the Vietnamese lifestyle beyond the normal tourist experience. Although, this is only the tip of the iceberg I think we got a better exposure than if we had stayed with the familiar hotel accommodations. My hallucinations made me cope with the unknown and kept me relaxed, however, we took precautions even before going on this trip. I did a lot of research on the Internet for options and reputable but reasonably priced tour providers. Testimonies of other travelers proved very valuable in making an informed decision. When we got to Vietnam I also checked out the brochures from various travel agencies to see if my chosen providers are reputable enough to surface in the legitimate travel market. It pays to see the local tours landscape as well once you get to your destination just in case there are better deals and, more importantly, to check the legitimacy of your chosen tour providers. Its also good to check out the local tourism authority, more than the tours, to get to know the culture so as not to do anything that would offend your host and make you spend the night or eternity in the local prison.

 

 

While we were on our way to the home stay accommodation we were also sending text messages and tweets to friends and families so they could keep track of our activities. Technology has really gone a long way and we could use it not only to get to our destination but to keep track of our activities and make our loved ones feel secure knowing that we are safe.

And the best disposition during these travels is to keep an open mind. My partner and I were in this trip with his 60-something-year-old mom and aunt. They were very good company as they immersed themselves in the culture and whatever experience was in store for us. They might be senior citizens by age but they embodied a very young spirit for fun and adventure…next up Bangkok!

Sampan Ride to Home Stay

Sampan ride on our way to home stay.

I lay motionless in the wooden bed watching the giant praying mantis try to free itself from the webbing of the pink mosquito net. The drone of the electric fan in the room drowning the voices of the people outside. I could feel movement as the last remaining minutes of daylight passing through the small cracks of the shack gets blocked by bodies  shuffling here and there.  In the back of my head I was trying to convince myself that everything would be alright. Why wouldn’t it be, this trip was supposed to be one of those great Family Holiday Deals in Vietnam, you know, fun for the whole family.

I didn’t think much of it as we were separated earlier that day from the rest of the group. Most of the tourists opted for the usual hotel accommodation whereas I insisted on the “home stay”option, feeling like a VIP, since i paid extra for the option, not thinking that the lives of my other companions would also be put at stake! Excitement was even heightened as we boarded the small motorized sampan that will take us to the exclusive and fabulous villas.

The first five minutes of the ride gave us a quick whiff of the river culture that dominated the lives of the Vietnamese people. I felt like Osmosis Jones tunneling through the veins of the Vietnamese culture as I watched them bathe, fish, wash and defecate in the river that serves as its lifeblood – a complex circulatory system  at work. But excitement slowly turned to fear as the river became narrower and the houses along the river banks were replaced by dense patches of palm trees and mangroves.

I felt my hair grew longer, my chest developed two huge lumps, and my lips started to tingle from what seemed like a permanent pout. My rubber slippers were replaced by hiking boots as my shorts started to shrink until it was barely enough to cover my crotch. I could feel a wedgie but soon realized that it was from the red thong. My hips were heavy and as I reached down I felt a 45 caliber semi automatic strapped to each side – I was Lara Croft – and it made me feel better! I was ready for whatever adventure would come our way.

After about 30 minutes, which seemed like an eternity of hallucination to mask the fear,  the sampan slowed and prepared to dock to a makeshift station, literally a concrete slab protruding from the river bank. I was the last one to alight as i had to keep watch over the perimeter, hands placed on my sides, ready to draw my 45’s (the Mekong river must’ve some hallucinogenic properties or could be the fumes I inhaled from the diesel engine of the sampan).  We arrived at our destination.

The house was across the dock separated by a narrow gravel road only big enough for motorcycles. It wasn’t so bad, but it wasn’t the Cayman Islands either. We entered a normal looking concrete house and my apprehensions started to subside a little, as my breasts started to look normal and I was back to my old self again. We entered the gate and was greeted by Thao’s family, the guy who captained the sampan, and our host. The customary hi’s and hello’s were exchanged followed by sign languages directing us to our villas located at the back of the house. Thank goodness, for a moment there I thought we were all sleeping together in the same house, huddled in one large straw mat!

As for the villas, they were beautifully appointed, light and breezy, studio-type rustic accommodations with a view of the bay, made from indigenous materials accentuated by floral interiors with a touch of minimalism. But as the effects of the diesel fumes started to wear off, I realized that there is only word to describe the villa – SHACK – and it was facing the swamp! Unfazed, I tried to look at the bright side of this trip … ahhh …. uh-mm …. ehrr…. In the middle of thinking about the bright side of the trip my mind got tired that I had to lie in bed.

There I was lying in bed, contemplating, as my mind started to play tricks on me again with sounds of Huey helicopters and Richard Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries,” when I was brought back to reality by my partner holding a glass of Vietnamese iced coffee, which in this part of the world they only call iced coffee or as the locals say cà phê sữa đá, now that’s a pleasantly, bright surprise! As our host prepared dinner we chatted with Tom, a fellow traveler who also wanted to experience the home stay option. Tom is Vietnamese from Hanoi and was traveling to Ho Chi Minh in preparation for setting up his own adventure travel packages. He is a gift because he can communicate in English as well as Vietnamese, Chinese and Khmer.

After a few minutes our host, Thao, motioned us to the outdoor table set up where dinner was served. It was a modest dinner, spring rolls, rice paper, vegetables, rice noodles, and the piece-de-resistance – steamed elephant ear fish freshly caught from the Mekong. Thao and Tom showed us how to eat the rice paper. They loaded it with vegetables, rice noodle and a bit of the steamed fish, sprinkled a bit of fish sauce with crushed chilies, rolled it up and voila – fresh spring rolls. Thao brought out rice wine and offered us all a shot. Other drinks like waster, sodas and beers were also offered at a reasonable price. The rice wine is a welcomed addition considering where the fish came from. We didn’t want to offend our host and one can never be too careful about what they eat or drink in unfamiliar places. Alcohol should do good in cleansing the toxins off whatever we have eaten.

We chatted a bit with our host after dinner as he served tea. After a few minutes we all made our excuses and proceeded to get ready for bed.

The shower and toilet is another adventure. They were communal and located about 10 steps away from our villa. There were 2 showers and 2 toilets shared among occupants of 7 shacks.  Luckily we were the only guests that night, 4 of us, my partner’s mom and aunt, my partner and myself, and Tom. The path from the shacks leading to the toilets were lit with 5 watt incandescent bulbs to add to the mood. There was hot water  that flowed  ever so slowly it took 2 hours for each of us to get rid of the day’s dirt. By the time we were all finished showering there was nothing else to do but sleep.  Lulled by the sound of crickets and occasional barks of dogs, thankful for the day’s adventure, we snoozed in anticipation of the rendezvous along the Mekong the next day.

TO BE CONTINUED – Lara Croft Meets James Bond on the Mekong Floating Market.

What’s the best way to spend your holidays 2011?  How about including some amazing scenery and an up close look at the history and nature of a place?  These hiking vacation tours will ensure you see interesting and unusual places while still satisfying your appetite for adventure.  Here are my five walking/trekking tours that you should definitely not miss.

If you are a nature lover, you will fall in love with the Bamboo Forest in Maui, Hawaii.  The rustling of the bamboo by the wind will relax you on this moderately difficult hike.  Although there are no pandas in this bamboo forest, you can find many tropical birds and wildlife in the Hawaiian ecosystem.  The hike is great for nature lovers and historians both as you will also explore the Hawaiian Folklore and History.

Step into old-world Italy with the Cinque Terre Hiking Trip, a tour of five fishing villages in the Italian Riviera.  Starting from Florence, Italy, you will trek through vineyards and olive orchards as you explore a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site.  Visit the sunny beaches to catch a look at the brightly colored fishing boats.  Stroll through the seaside promenades and piazzas on your way to visit the shops and venders along the narrow paths.

Explore the frozen world of the Mendenhall Glacier just outside of Juneau, Alaska.  The hike starts with a trail through rocky terrain along the lake’s edge.  Once you reach the glacier, you will receive ice climbing instruction and a practice climb to familiarize you with using an ice pick and other equipment.  Then you can climb the Mendenhall Glacier to explore the ice caves and crevasses.  Get a front row view of streams and other glacial formations as you continue your climb.

Start your hiking vacation of the Colored Canyon in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt with a four-wheel drive trip across the desert to Abu Galum.  During the safari, see local wildlife such as Nubian Ibex, Red Foxes, and Striped Hyenas.  Then it is on to the colored canyon for a hike through the mountains.  View the changing colors of the sun glistening off of the oxidized surfaces of the cliffs and mountains.

Hiking in St. Miquel del Fai not far from Barcelona, Spain is an amazing tour.  Here you can combine viewing breathtaking natural scenery with the Medieval Architecture.  Start in a beautiful valley full of cascading water falling from rocky cliffs above into glistening pools.  Then tour St Miquel, a tenth century chapel that was built under a cliff.  A visit to the caves of St Miquel and Tosques will give you photo opportunities with the amazing stalactite and stalagmite formations.  You will explore the best that nature and history have to offer with this hiking vacation.