Death is Waiting - September 29, 2013

The eight-inch rock dislodged from the walls of the cave, hurtling toward the bottom of the 120-foot pit, where the caver was standing, unaware of the potentially lethal projectile.

The rock smashed into her wrist, slashing her skin and leaving behind a swollen reminder of the encounter. But what if the rock had crashed on top of her head or landed on her face?

Death is waiting.

Last month, I decided to visit my sister. Friends often tease me about driving too slow, but on this particular afternoon it might have saved a life.

As I crested a hill, a child suddenly shot around from behind a blind curve into the middle of the street, after losing control of her bicycle. If I had been traveling one mile per hour faster or been distracted by a text, I'm convinced I would have plowed into her.

Death is waiting.

A couple of days ago, I read an excellent article in National Geographic about longevity. Assuming an average life span of about 80 years, the article pointed out that major health problems such as cancer, diabetes, stroke, or dementia will likely begin surfacing around the age of 61, the very time when many retirees finally get around to pursuing their dreams.

Death is waiting.

Maybe, we should all reflect more on our finite existence on earth. What are we putting off - vacations, spending more time with our families, righting a wrong?  Maybe, we should all get started on our To-do lists today because sometimes tomorrow never arrives.

A Barrage of Questions - Chicago, IL - July 24, 2013

I'm home safely in the United States, but it wasn't easy, and for awhile, I wasn't sure if immigration wanted to let me return.

I knew the flights, themselves, wouldn't be a picnic. The actual flying time was 25 hours, but with layovers, I was on the road more than 30. That's the price one pays for a 10,000 mile journey, so I'm not complaining.

While flying home, I anticipated a lengthy encounter with immigration and that's exactly what I got. It makes sense. After all, I was gone almost two months wandering around Southeast Asia, an area known for drug production.

My first glimpse of what was in store for me back in America started in Hanoi, when the airline wanted to know how long I'd stay in Bangkok and to prove I had a return ticket. When I left Bangkok, the woman at the check-in desk frowned as she looked at my passport. She then asked me to write out my home address, which I assume was meant to test me because I think she had the information on her monitor.

The real fun occurred in Chicago. The airport has a new computer system designed to speed up the immigration process. A passenger scans his passport and, if everything checks out, moves into an expedited line. When I scanned my passport and printed my receipt, a large "x" covered my picture. I knew then there would be no speedy line for me.

The clerk in passport control asked me a host of questions. She seemed particularly intrigued by why I had spent so much time in Southeast Asia and covered so much ground.

After finishing the friendly interrogation, I moved over to customs. Normally, I'm waved through without any questions or even a glance at my backpack. Not this time.

I was sent alone to an area with a table and an interrogator. He was excellent. Had I been hiding something I'm sure he would have tripped me up. He would have made Perry Mason proud.

The gentleman seemed to purposely want to be confrontational and rattle me because he asked a series of rapid-fire questions in an annoyed manner like he didn't believe a word I was saying and couldn't stand to be in my presence - "What's your job?" ... "What do you teach?" ... "What's the name of your school?" ... "Why did you travel for so long with just a backpack? You've got to have more luggage." ... "Why would you want to go to Southeast Asia?" ... "What did you think of Vietnam?"

Of course, he asked me multiple times if I was carrying drugs. At one point, I said I didn't use drugs, to which he replied, "That doesn't mean you aren't transporting them."

Throughout the interview, he asked questions more than once in a different way. At one point, he studied my passport and asked me where I had obtained my Vietnamese visa. The information was printed on the visa, but I think he wanted to see if I could recall the information.

"So you paid $100 for the visa?" he asked in an offhand manner, to which I replied, "No, I paid $60." I'm sure he knew how much I paid but, again, wanted to rattle me.

Then, he asked me to tell him some places I'd visited in Thailand. I listed several and said I then crossed over into Laos.

He cut me off. "You took that two-day party boat." Actually, I did take a two-day boat down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang, but I disagreed with his characterization of the ride.

"It wasn't a party boat," I said. "It was much too hot to be drinking on the river."

That annoyed him a little bit. "Plenty of young people get loaded," he said. I wasn't going to argue because he held my fate in his hands.

After what seemed like 20 minutes of questions, he opened my pack. I expected him to methodically check everything, but he just pulled out a couple of items and entered some information into a computer. I guess the real test was the interview.

Even though the experience was a bit intimidating, I wasn't at all annoyed. Had the situation been reversed, I might have done the same thing with a backpacker who spent almost two months in Southeast Asia.

I cleared customs, but I wasn't done yet with the intense scrutiny. Next, I had to go through the check point to take my remaining flight from Chicago to Atlanta. The agent scanned my bag. Afterward, another agent walked up and, in a very polite manner, asked if the bag belonged to me.

I said yes. "Something doesn't look right," he said.

The agent examined my pack and pulled out several items, including four masks I'd bought. "We'd like to rescan your bag and scan the masks separately."

Again, I wasn't at all offended and thanked him for his vigilance. "Most people complain," he said. "It's nice to get a compliment." I'm all for anything that makes flying safer.

The rescan seemed to satisfy their concerns, but the agent performed one final test. He swabbed two of my masks with some kind of strip and ran the strips through a machine. I'm not sure if he was checking for bomb residue or drug residue, but I passed the test.

There's nothing I'd rather do than travel, but I must admit I get a thrill out of the return trip, knowing that I'll be arriving in a familiar place where I understand the culture, the legal system, and can call someone if I have a problem.

The flight landed late in Atlanta at almost 1 a.m., but my Uncle Ben and Aunt Cinda were waiting outside the terminal with smiles on their faces. Aside from the familial connection, they are two of my favorite people in the world because they are extremely interesting, generous, and great hosts.

When I finally dropped my exhausted body into the back seat, Cinda handed me a goodie bag with water and snacks. She'd thought of everything. For the first time in nearly two months, I could completely let my guard down and allow someone else to take over.

Now, I'm back in Dalton and my trip has officially ended. It was a great summer. There were lots of high points and only one low - my getting sick toward the end of my time in Cambodia. At one point as my fever continued to rise, I seriously considered skipping Vietnam and heading back to Bangkok for treatment. Fortunately, it didn't come to that because I thoroughly enjoyed my two plus weeks in Vietnam.

People have already asked me what was my favorite country. I'd have to put Cambodia and Vietnam on about the same level. The people in Cambodia are some of the friendliest, most welcoming I've ever met, especially considering the hardships they've endured over the last 60 years, but the Vietnamese are also quite friendly, and it's hard to beat the food and scenery.

Even though I've got to head back to work, I hope that my blog might inspire someone to check out a foreign locale. I promise you won't be disappointed. As I often tell people, if a traveler encounters good things, like witnessing the sunrise at Angkor Wat, or hardships, like losing a passport for several hours, it still provides some entertaining stories.

Thanks for all of your e-mails and good wishes during my almost two-month journey. A few kind words go a long way when a traveler is thousands of miles from home.

It's nice to be back.

Tense Moments in Bangkok - July 22, 2013

Everything had gone so smoothly on my trip, until yesterday.

Earlier in the day, I had a bad omen with my passport. When checking in for my flight from Hanoi to Bangkok, something about my passport bothered the clerk, so much so that she called over a supervisor.

Afterward, the clerk asked me how long I planned to spend in Thailand and then wanted to see proof I had purchased a return flight to America. Hmm.....When I showed her my flight confirmation, she was satisfied and printed my boarding pass.

The one hour, twenty minute flight was great. If you ever have a chance to take Qatar, do it. The plane was spacious, the attendants well trained and professional, and even though it was such a short flight, we still got fed.

Immigration in Bangkok was a breeze and soon I was checking into a hotel. As in my countries, the receptionist asked to make a copy of my passport. I set it on the counter. While she was filling out some paper work, an American man and his wife walked up and began talking to me. A few minutes later they left for dinner.

After paying for the room, I asked for my passport back. The woman said, "You never gave it to me."Fear welled up inside me.

Most of the year my passport sits in a drawer collecting dust, but when I'm abroad, it's my most important possession. No passport meant no flight home.

The receptionist said she felt the American accidentally picked it up because, at the time, he was also checking in and put his valuables in a safety deposit box. She just didn't seem overly concerned, which made me angrier and angrier. "Something like a passport disappearing off the counter can't happen," I said.

She did a cursory search around the desk and said she was sorry, which set me off even more, especially since she insinuated it was my fault for talking to the American, even though I had set the passport on her desk, trusting I'd get it back.

For about an hour, I sat and waited for the American to return from dinner. Visions of spending days filing police reports and begging the American embassy to issue me a temporary passport filled my head.
While enduring the tense hour, a man walked up to me, who said he travels to Bangkok often. He wished me luck, but he said scams are common in the city and that my passport was probably gone.

That didn't help, and it infuriated me off even more that the attendant still didn't seem overly concerned. I had to take a walk.

When I returned, she held up my passport, saying the American had accidentally put it into the safety deposit box, not realizing his mistake. I felt like jumping for joy. This morning, I ran into him, and he said, actually, she had put the passports into the box.

I apologized to the clerk for getting upset, and she finally acknowledged she had made a mistake not immediately securing my passport.

I'm always so careful with my passport. I learned a valuable lesson that I never should let my guard down with such an important document, even if the hotel clerk is three feet away.

With the relief of getting my passport returned, my spirits were high, meaning I had a terrific final night. Central Bangkok reminds me a lot of Times Square back in the 1980s - bright lights, excitement, great food, people from all over the world, and a lot of seedy characters and illicit activities. Let me put it to you this way. Today, two different prostitutes at 7 a.m. were already pestering me to pay for their services.

Tonight, around 3 a.m., I begin my flight home. I'll let you know when I return to America. As always, I'll be in touch, but it might be a couple of days because of the jet lag.

A Slice of Paradise - Ha Long Bay, Vietnam - July 20, 2013

Many times the claims of travel writers never seem to measure up to reality, but I can say without any exaggeration that Ha Long Bay is stunning. It's one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen.

The bay is surrounded by jagged, limestone cliffs rising hundreds of feet into the air. That's impressive enough, but even within the water itself, limestone islands jut up from the depths, towering overhead. Sailing through the bay is like navigating a rocky obstacle course.

It's so beautiful that it's easier to overlook some of the plastic and other garbage floating in the water. The ecology movement apparently has not yet arrived in Vietnam. It's too bad. Hey, I try to write the truth.

I visited the UNESCO Word Heritage Site on a three-day, two night, all inclusive tour. Normally, that's not my style; however, my time in Southeast Asia is growing short and it seemed to be the best way to get there. I must admit it was relaxing having someone handle all the logistics.

The first day 16 of us from seven different countries boarded a junk boat, a wooden vessel popular throughout China and Vietnam, a boat you've probably seen in the movies. Initially, we sailed to a cave, which obviously made me happy. Afterward, we kayaked and finished off the day swimming alongside the boat. That night, we slept aboard the craft. It wasn't the Ritz but quite comfortable.

The next day our group went ashore to Cat Ba Island, where we toured a national park and hiked up a mountain to take in the view. That afternoon we checked into a hotel, and I spent the rest of the day checking out three beaches with my new French friends - Thierry, an environmentalist; Julie, a fair trade worker; and Matthieu, a physics/math teacher.  We bonded immediately. As I've said before, I normally don't feel lonely on the road, especially with such fascinating people backpacking around the world.

The tour was definitely one of the highlights of my seven weeks here.

On the way back, I got some more insights into the perceptions of some tourists about Vietnam. During the bus trip to Hanoi, a young German guy turned around and said he felt that Vietnamese people were unfriendly.

Normally, I would have let it slide, but I feel just the opposite after having spent two weeks here and wanted to delve into his comment. I began by respectfully asking if he'd ever visited a market to buy fruit or try a meal......"No," he responded. Then, I asked him if he'd tried to reach out and communicate with anyone he'd passed. Again, "no," he said. At this point I said, "Maybe, that's your problem."

I'm sad he'll go home feeling Vietnamese are unfriendly. For the next few minutes, Matthieu and I discussed how much we'd enjoyed meeting the Vietnamese, hoping the German guy was listening. Actually, the experience made me reflect on how many times I've had a negative perception of strangers, probably because of what I brought to the interaction.

I'm now back in Hanoi and have run out of real estate. China lies less than 200 miles to the north. The Gulf of Tonkin is to the east, and Laos borders Vietnam to the west.  I've got two choices - take a 40-hour bus ride across Vietnam and Laos back to Bangkok or take a two-hour flight. Really, I've got one option. There's no way I'm spending that much time on a bus, especially after having already done an overnight train and three overnight buses.

So, tomorrow, I'm flying to Bangkok and the next day home. Throughout my trip, I've been pushing forward, trusting that everything would work out. I assumed I'd find an inexpensive flight back to Bangkok. A few days ago, I searched on the internet and went to a few travel agents.

Everyone kept pushing Vietnam Air, but I knew I could find something better. Finally, an agent said she could get me a good deal on an airline she'd never heard of before. It turned out to be Qatar, a middle-eastern carrier known as one of the best in the world for customer service. I smiled and told her I'd go ahead and take a chance on the cheap one. If it's anything like Etihad, I'm in for a great experience.

So, tomorrow, I'm flying to Bangkok and the next day coming home. It's hard to believe my journey is coming to an end. I've had a terrific time, but as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. Plus, I'm looking forward to seeing everyone.

That's it from Hanoi. I'm tired and have a long day ahead of me. As always, I'll be in touch, but it might be a couple of days.

Hanoi Hilton - July 17, 2013

Hoa Lo prison has had a long, infamous history. The French built the facility in the late 1800s - incarcerating, torturing, and executing Vietnamese up until the time Vietnam gained its independence. The museum went to great lengths to document the harsh treatment the French inflicted on the Vietnamese.

During the Vietnam War, shot-down U.S. fighter pilots were also imprisoned there. That's when the prison earned the nickname, the "Hanoi Hilton."

According to the exhibit,the POWs received "decent and humane treatment." The exhibit indicated, "During the war, the national economy was difficult but the Vietnamese government had created the best living conditions to U.S. pilots for they had a stable life during the temporary detention period." The exhibit went on to say that the living conditions for the prisoners was often better than that of the Vietnamese.

The museum in the former prison even displayed photos of prisoners playing chess, billiards, basketball, watching movies,and celebrating Christmas.

However, American POWs tell a much different story, saying they endured extremely harsh conditions, including regular beatings and torture. Senator John McCain, the ex-presidential candidate, spent 6 years at the "Hanoi Hilton," after being shot down in 1967. His flight suit is on display.

Currently, I am a guest of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and feel it's best to refrain from comment about the discrepancies. I'll leave that to my readers and to historians to decide.

Unfortunately, much of the prison was torn down to make way for a hotel and shopping complex.

After touring the site, I had a chance to stroll around the city. Even though Hanoi is a modern metropolis jammed with people and traffic, the central historical district is quite scenic, with its narrow, winding streets and structures from hundreds of years ago.

I've enjoyed unwinding the last two days. Tomorrow, I will head about three hours east toward Halong Bay, where I'll do an overnight cruise and then spend an additional night on Cat Ba Island. I've heard its a stunning spot, a bay surrounded by jagged limestone cliffs. It feels like a great, relaxing way to cap off my 7-week trip. By the way, Halong Bay is off the Gulf of Tonkin, which certainly got a lot of press in the Vietnam War.

I continue to have positive interactions with the locals. This morning, I walked into a soup place on the street. Basically, it was a woman cooking the concoction in a big pot on the sidewalk. It wasn't hard to decide because there was just one option - soup.

When I sat down on one of the plastic stools, she smiled. I don't think she gets many customers who are tourists. After she served me, she hovered around, waiting to see my reaction. Actually, it was some of the best soup I've had on my trip. She smiled from ear to ear when I rubbed my belly, indicating my satisfaction.

Later, a man sat down and ate with me. When I told him I was American, he smiled, shook my hand, and we spent several minutes working on his English. Still,I can't find any of that anti-American sentiment some tourists complain about.

It's time to close. I'm getting tired. As always, I'll be in touch.

The Road Winds to Hanoi - July 17, 2013

After a 14-hour bus ride, I made it to Hanoi. I slept a little bit on the journey, but it was rough. Hey, it's all part of the process. As I've said before, overseas travel is many things - eye opening, enriching, satisfying, exciting, and sometimes, relaxing, but often, it is also draining. Still, there's nothing I'd rather do with my free time.

Over the last few weeks, I've heard several travelers say they don't like Vietnam, especially the North, because the tourists claim they don't feel welcome. I feel just the opposite. The Vietnamese have been quite friendly, and at times, very playful.

Maybe, the issue is that the Vietnamese are a little shy with their English or maybe, by nature, Vietnamese are more reserved with strangers. Again, that is why I enjoy traveling alone because I think I am less intimidating.

In particular, I've heard tourists say people in Hanoi can be a bit cold, especially toward Americans. Keep in mind America fought against the North in the war. I attribute the idea of coldness to something else.

Hanoi is the capital of the Vietnam. A few days ago, I spoke at length with a Vietnamese woman who said that some people in Hanoi maintain the attitude that they are more sophisticated than those from the countryside. I've certainly experienced such an attitude when I lived in New York City. To some, New York is the center of the universe and the epicenter is Manhattan.

At the same time, New Yorkers are always in a hurry. The pace of life is hectic, and New Yorkers aren't necessarily the type that are going to say "hello" to everyone who passes. There's just not time.

Within 20 minutes of arriving in Hanoi, I felt the same kind of New York vibe. The people aren't unfriendly, rude, or anti-American, they just live in a city of millions with a hectic pace of life. Still, I've already had some great conversations and felt very welcome. It just takes a little more effort and time to make a connection.

I don't doubt tourists have had some negative experiences in Hanoi, but I've also talked to dozens of people in the United States over the years who would prefer New York City to vanish from the face of the earth because of their negative perceptions of the place. 

Last night, I talked with an older Vietnamese woman for over an hour. I brought up the topic of the war. She had a refreshing outlook. She said the war was in the past and that many Vietnamese, including those in the North, prefer to look toward the future.

Today, I plan to take a look around the city and visit the infamous "Hanoi Hilton," the place where American POWs were imprisoned and tortured.

Tomorrow, I hope to get to Halong Bay.

That's it. I am getting hungry for my morning soup after a restful night of sleep. I found a great hotel and decided to splurge. Normally, I spent around $6 dollars a night for a room. Last night, I paid the princely sum of $11.

As always, I'll be in touch.

A Return to the South China Sea - Hue, Vietnam - July 15, 2013

Beaches aren't my top travel destination, but in Vietnam, they're always close at hand, so yesterday I returned to the South China Sea for an afternoon of body surfing.

I met up with my American friends, Allie and Brent. She's a nurse. He's in a Blues band. They are a delightful couple. I first met them in Laos. A month later I ran into them on a bus in Vietnam. Imagine the odds. I was sad to see them leave yesterday, but we're going to try to get together one last time in Hanoi.

Because so much of Vietnam lies on the coast, it would be impossible for all the beaches to be full. Yesterday, the beach near Hue was practically empty. All we could see for miles were a few beach huts and large waves crashing against the golden sand. Great day!

I got to the beach with my favorite mode of transport - a Mary Poppins bicycle. Along the 7-mile route, I peddled my way through rice fields and a fishing village, listening to a chorus of "hellos" as I passed. If I had a dollar for every time someone said "hello" to me, especially kids, I'd have the cost of my vacation covered.

I think they are being friendly, and I think many Vietnamese want to practice their English. I'm happy to help, and it gives me a chance to interact and learn more about the culture.

I've been surprised by the playfulness of some Vietnamese. This morning, I returned to a local place for breakfast, a place I'd eaten yesterday. Like all of Southeast Asia, soup is the morning delicacy.

During the meal, the woman cooking on the sidewalk walked over to me and said, "You are handsome man. You and me, O.K.?" It was all in good fun. She's married and probably 20 years older than me, but I enjoyed the banter.

Often, I'm asked at home and here in Southeast Asia why I travel alone. This morning's encounter is a prime reason why. If I'm alone, I'm forced to reach out to others, and they feel more comfortable approaching me. If I'm traveling in a pack, it intimidates many people, especially those who are shy. I think it's the best way to immerse oneself in a foreign culture.

This is my third day in Hue. It's big enough that there's a lot going on but not unmanageable, and it still has a small town feel.

This afternoon, I'm heading to Hanoi via my last overnight bus ride, a 14-hour marathon. Really, the overnight sleeper buses aren't bad. Each passenger sits in a small compartment with an inclined seat that can almost be reclined flat. My legs are a little long, but I'm able to get some sleep. I'll take it over a plane any day.

Before I close, I wanted to throw in a couple of asides that I keep forgetting to include.

First, I am surprised by the modest dress of people throughout Southeast Asia. Even though it is steaming some days, men generally wear long pants and women remain covered up. Apparently, the people don't appreciate foreigners who reveal too much skin.

In Laos, at Vang Vieng, the place where I rode tubes down the river, the community actually posted several signs asking men not to go bare chested and women not to wear bikini tops because it offends Laotians. For the most part, tourists complied.

Throughout my trip, I've asked tourism people where most travelers originate. In Laos and Cambodia, I was told the majority of visitors are from Korea. In Vietnam, no one seems to know.

Speaking of tourism, I asked in Cambodia how many visitors came to the country last year. I was told 7 million, which if you think about it, isn't much. I'll bet most go to Ankhor. The same person told me that only 100,000 people visited the town of Battambang, where I saw the "killing caves."

Finally, malaria is supposedly for real in the region. It's not a problem in most tourist areas, but I read last week that one third of all people in Laos will contract the disease at some point in their lives.

That's about all I've got. I still need to pack. Next stop, Hanoi. As always, I'll be in touch.