These turtles live to be 200, 300 years.

Family Gap Year Adventures, Chapter 9 – Malaysia

After two months in wonderful Thailand, our visas threaten to run out, and it is time to move south. Our next destination is Malaysia, and this is going to be an experience of culture and nature, the peninsular part with its history and traditions, the cities along the strait of Malacca tempting with their stories of trade, pirates and sailors, an echo of the enchanting past still resounding in the modern world of today. Then there is the eastern part, a slice of wild and untamed Borneo, where primeval forests are reaching their green arms towards the tropical sky, the layer of civilization thin, and only on the surface, the ecosystem is inherited virtually unchanged from thousands and thousands of years of human presence, however there is a snake in this paradise from the beginnings of time, corruption and  greedy men that practice money logging, and trees are mysteriously disappearing from the pristine jungle.

Langkawi

We arrive by ferry from Satun, having a pleasant conversation with my neighbour in english, realizing with an even greater pleasure, that in this country we would actually be able to communicate with the local people, and this will be recomfirmed, again and again, even in the tiniest of villages. Our first impression is of a rich country, with an excellent infrastructure, malls and malls, and even more shopping malls. Things are more civilized, people are actually using the seatbelts in their cars, and my 16 year old daughter feels offended, that the scooter rentals require an actual driving licence, thus ruling her out from the drivers seat. Then there is the heat, it is an immense wall, the air you are moving trough feels solid, your brain is sending warning signals, as it is melting slowly, and as you walk by the inviting automatic doors, that belong to any of the enormous selection of shopping malls, the freezing blast of subarctic cold aircondition becomes irresistible, you are drawn inside, and see that it is the place, where the village life is revolving, as the streets are empty, and the malls brimming full. If you resist the siren call of the shopping mall, then a hammock under a ventilator is the next-best place to be during the day. We are staying in a very sweet spot,  Soluna Guest House,  surrounded by coconut palms, equipped with the essential hammocks, full of travellers staying for an indefinite amount of time, time is slowed down to revevolve around essential questions only, like what are we having for lunch.  After having completed a circle of the island in both directions on our scooters, beach hopping and stopping for lunch at small road side stalls, there is really not much more to do, and we start packing our bags. We meet a canadian family, traveling longterm with their 9 year old daughter, and we agree over a lunch, that travel tastes best when you have time to sample each destination, but they express genuine surprise that we want to move on after merely a week, while their own optimal time is a minimumt a month at each place. Well, they have been on the road for seven years… As we are packing our bags to leave the friendly guest house, nomads getting ready to hit the road again, my daughter shows signs of being travel weary, and partially inspired by the others family’s one-month-in-each-place paradigm, we start looking for a place on workaway, where she can spend some time sipping a destination at a leisurely pace, working and contributing, while my son and I are drawn towards a more hardcore road adventure, splitting up seems to be the way forward, to let each family member follow their heart.

The Strait settlements – Penang and Malacca

The sea route from China to Europe led trough the straits around the malaysian peninsula, and three ports were the melting pot of east and west, a meeting point for seafarers and merchants, a place to trade goods from India, China, Europe and the Ottoman empire. The melting pot has left a charming colonial architecture, and an amazing cuisine. A wild creativity slumbers underneath.  We arrive to Penang’s Georgetown, the northernmost of the strait settlements, where we have rented an appartment for a few days to ease the travel weary family.

There are so many food choices – as a result of the fusion and mixing of some of the worlds greatest cusines – indian, chinese, thai and arabic, that arrived here with the sailors, traders and settlers. Happy, that we can read the signs, and communicate, our days in Penang are spent exploring all kind of dishes, from chinese jiozi dumplings, indian roti, the fabulous laksa soup to slowly cooked, spicy nasi kandar, and cendol for dessert. Drinks are served sweet and chilled, and as the heat is immense and unbearable in the city, breakfasts, lunch and dinners turn into half day affairs under the fan of the friendly hawker center, or the wonder of aircondition in the mall.  I feel that my brain is melting away, together with the will to move, and only after sunset does the wanderlust and explorer spirit return.  Is it a wonder, that the perenthians are not petit, thin and willowy as their neigbours from other South East Asian countries, but rather show signs of gravitating towards obese?

We have met a wonderful couple of polish-canadian nomads in Chiang Mai, and felt that our few encounters with Magda and Brian were far to short for the immense potential of discussion with these interesting people, and we are excited when they invite us to stay with them in their rented appartment in Malacca, a temporary home. It is a pleasure to follow Magda’s lead, as she has an obvious talent for finding these small quirky places, that

We decide to split up again – Pawel and I go to Borneo for 2 weeks of combined jungle adventures and diving, Magdalena will volunteer building mud houses north of kuala lumpur Couchsurfing with friends, we met in Chiang Mai   hot, hot, hot wet from sweat, my energy has left me the trees are cut down, the streets are shade less, intolerable walking under the sun, i dream of broad banana leafs, and their juicy green shade

Parting ways in KL

KL – Kuala Lumpur, the high rise, fast paced capital of Malaysia, is green between the skyscrapers, and thus surprisingly pleasant after Penang and Melacca. Green trees, a central location, and a wonderful couchsurfing meeting, after a week in this country, we finally have a chance to talk with locals

Behind us, we have eight months of travel. Each night, sharing a tent, or a dorm, or double bed, or floor space, or a hammock, together day and night. Answering the same basic backpacker questions, and hearing each other give the worn out answers back to all the hundreds and hundreds of people encountered on the way:

– What’s your name – usually this is volunteered, and immediately forgotten.

– Where are you from – here we alternate between Poland and Denmark.

– How long are you traveling for – the standard answer is a year, how about yourself?

– Where do you go next? Where did you come from? – a quick exchange of plans, what was good or bad, how was the hotel, the sight, worth or not worth going to, avoid at all costs anything featured in Lonely Planet, and maybe once more retell how we slept next to a bear in Russia, and how there was a fire in the neighbor’s tent.

I start skipping the questions, replacing “Where are your from” with “What is your favorite color”, or “Which book has inspired you most”, thus breaking up the protocol, and sometimes managing to get a confused look, other times a blink, and a conspiratory look back.

Moving, and meeting new people, and sampling new experiences start to wear us down – as individuals, and as a family unit.

We realize, that we need space, and decide to split up. My daughter gets a positive reply on Workaway from a funny, anarchistic farm in Kuala Selangor, about 80 kilometers north of KL, and she decides to stay there a few weeks, thus replacing organic gardening for the pristine jungles of Borneo.  We take the bus to Kuala Selangor together, and are met by a  farm full of volunteers, happy, freewheeling, they are making sugar cane-ginger juice as a group, from local ingredients, with immense concentration, a few cats work around, shanty barracks filled with art and poems.

When you are a volunteer, don’t think efficiency. Don’t think, that your time is a valuable commodity. Volunteering is only successful, if you acknowledge, that it is a gift to you, to be here and now, at this particular location, working with these particular people, on this particular project. I leave my daughter Magda with the funky people, and the immensely intriguing group dynamics, while Pawel and myself  will fly next day to Borneo – jungle survival and diving adventures are waiting.

I kiss my daughter goodbye:

– See you in two weeks, have fun!

I look at her retreating back, knowing this will do her good. On the bus back, I find myself thinking whether this travel is contributing to my children’s education as citizens of this planet, as that was my original purpose and motivation for exchanging a yellow brick house with backpacks and a nomadic lifestyle, or is this to much sheltering, am I missing to give them valuable lessons in independency?

Together, and sometimes apart seems to be a good recipe.

Borneo and Bear Grylls

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We kindle fire, so we can cook a soup of the local plants and a few bugs.

We board a plane to KK – Kota Kinabalu –  on Borneo from KL, thus breaking our resolve to travel solely overland. It seems that the days of the ferries are gone, replaced by budget flights on Air Asia for a few euro. A certain charm is gone, but we can move over the blue water, and reach Borneo, a destination veiled in a family myth.

My father’s mother, my beloved granny Henia, was a prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp during WWII. She survived two years of unhuman conditions and grave hunger, and returned to find her beloved brother – Marian Szylski – is missing from the family home. Nobody has heard from him, since he was taken as forced labor, to a camp in Germany, announcements trough Red Cross don’t bring any news. Fast forward ten years, and Henia, widowed mother of two toddlers, hears on the radio from the polish sailor Teliga, that stopped on Borneo during his circumnavigation of the Earth:

– A man came out of the jungle. Introduced himself in polish, as Mariusz Szylski.

Henia, my granny, on hearing this, jumps into action. Who else could this man from the jungle be, than her beloved brother?She tries to contact the radio station, but does not get trough, she writes them a letter, but the correspondence is one sided only, a few months later the great sailor is dead. This was the age before easy searching, skype and internet, merely making a phone call between cities was an immense effort, and being behind the communist curtain, she never managed to reach Borneo, and pick up the trail of her lost brother. But she told the story to us, the grand children, and thus I was brought up with a taste for Borneo, to go there, explore, search the jungle.

And this family story winds and rewinds in my head, as I look out of the plane window, on the emerald green island underneath, Borneo.

We head for the mountain Kinabalu, and Lupa Masa, a few huts in the jungle, where you can forget about the river of time, surrounded by the jungle, the deafening noise of the cicadas, sun filtered trough the leaves, such a luxury . The shopping malls with their aircondition are not necessary anymore, we are sheltered by the green, living roof, life is pleasant here, the cooling water from the river an expected luxury. We are treated to a survival course by the people from Lupa Masa, we start by kindling fire and cooking a soup of bugs, and proceed . Bear Grylls alter ego lives here, his name is Michael, and he has a friend from the local Dayak tribe, a good hunter from a great hunter family, and together we head deeper into the jungle. Our hunter friend is hyperactive, runs from trap to trap, catches a bug, uses the bug to catch a frog, and with the frog he catches a small fish, that is the bait for a tasty catfish, that we grill over our small campfire.

We leave the village by bus, a journey of eight hours that grow into twelve, a long and windy road trough the mountains, accompanied by locals, that are busy vomiting into the efficiently distributed plastic bags, shaken and beaten we emerge in Semporna, the port to Sipadan.

Learning to dive in Sipadan

I have been warned, that to learn diving in Sipadan, leaves you spoiled for a lifetime. Our diving company, Big John Scuba, is a small, locally operated business. Kids hang around, jump from the rafts, hungry for attention, displaying their best tricks. Our teacher, Dan, an old master of this craft, is unveiling for us the secrets of the under water world, the scuba gear, breathing under water. Being a diver for over forty years, every word is weighed with experience, he is strict, we are learning. The color of the water has an egsshell blue hue, we are staying in a house on stilts, directly over the water,  then we jump into the water, swim by, slowly, blowing bubbles, watching, watching, watching, amazed by all the colors of the rainbow, and those foreign forms of life, so different from us, living on here.

In the afternoons, I wander among the villagers, thinking of the bubbles of air that I am blowing when I breathe under water, in that other, under water world, where I am merely a visitor, and I see how everyone is inside a bubble, our worlds are bubbles, that gently meet, touch softly, exchange a color, a feeling, an emotion, a thought, an inspiration, from bubble to bubble, from my world to your world. Leaving a trace among the bubbles, that is what travel is about, being in another world, a guest, an observer, passing trough the under water world and the world above the water, just as foreign, for how much can we have in common, me, a seemingly rich tourist from the western world, and a toddler, the mother of 8 that is breastfeeding her youngest, while looking curiously at me, from the doorstep of her house, in the fishing village?

Together again

We meet in the airport in KL, hug, and board the same flight to Bali, a few days of layover, and a dirty cheap connection to New Zealand. Being apart has brought fresh air and space to each member of the family, lots of impressions to swap, and we are happy to be traveling together again.

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Family Gap Year Adventures, Chapter 8 – Islands of Thailand

Moving south

We leave Bangkok with a night train to Sukot Thani, a destination in the deep south of Thailand. Our last month in Thailand is going to be all about beaches, palms, sand, which we somehow have managed to avoid on the first half year of our journey. Having lost our swimsuits in China, my daughter and I feel an acute need to shop for swimwear.

After the experience of enjoying and growing roots in Chiang Mai, one of Asias most inspiring cities, we are in a hurry to go to the south of Thailand, in order to show up for an acroyoga-climbing workshop, organized by danish Move Copenhagen. We have signed up for it, one rainy day in China, after managing to circumvent the Great Chinese Firewall, and logging into Facebook for the first time in over a month,  starved for news from home, a lonely island in the sea of chinese people, scrolling down, stopping the scrolling, fixed at a friends status update – winter retreat in Thailand with Move Copenhagen, and remembering what Move Copenhagen is about, these great june days filled with crazy moves, a nordic summer, clear blue sky, the midsummer night fire roaring.

It is a strange thing with Facebook.

Despite all its commercial, time-wasting qualities, it is a lifeline home.

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Almost unspoken, collectively approved, a chapter in our trip has ended, as the bicycles change status from being the vehicle of travel, to local transport mode, and have to endure being stuffed on trains, buses, tuktuks and longtail boats between our southern destinations.

Sometimes, I find myself checking and rechecking my Facebook late in the evening, on my way to dream land, and I have diagnosed, that this is as an expression of longing, homesickness, of missing the faces and voices of people, that have been such a huge part of my life for years, and that i am so far away from … brothers, sister, friends.

While waiting in line to check in the bikes into the night train’s goods carriage, we meet a polish couple, they are checking in bikes as well, they have been suffering on their bicycles in south america, and are ready to continue the adventure in Thailand, while we are more and more dubious about using bicycles as the vehicle of transport, and bemused by why we tend to meet other polish people in strange places and dispositions.

After a night on the tracks, we are in the picture perfect tourist Thailand! We have arrived in  Sukot Thani, the first impression is, this place is too hot, to steaming, we look at our bicycles, and decide to share a tuk-tuk ride with our bikes, a dog, dog cage and a lot of scuba diving equipment, and a heap of backpacks, to our destination Ao Nang.

Almost unspoken, collectively approved, a chapter in our trip has ended, as the bicycles change status from being the vehicle of travel, to local transport mode, and have to endure being stuffed on trains, buses, tuktuks and longtail boats between our southern destinations. We decided to abandon our plan of riding to Singapore, and sell them somewhere on the way.

Ao Nang

Ao Nang is our fist destination in the south, we staying in a garden with ramshackle bamboo huts, a place with a friendly owner, with weary eyes, a shared communal dinner, and bungalows showing even more wear, cold water and ants.

White powdery sand, palms, a handful of travelers, and we meet our first tourist-tourists, people on short term holidays, that are here for the beach and sun, destination unspecified.

The beach side restaurant “La Luna” is a terrible experience, expensive and untasty, the waiters seem to experience a collective Weltzschmerze, the curry is a disguised can of tomatoes, I feel offended, where have all the wonderful thai spices gone, where is my lemon grass and ginger and galanga, the warning sign should have been that the menu is accessible in several european languages, we are in the middle of tourist-tourist zone. This experience has to be mended somehow, and next day we bike one kilometer to  have lunch in the locally famous seafood restaurant “Krua Thara“, which is a sublime experience, the sauce is divine, the fish was wiggling minutes before it hit our plates, the giant shrimps are cooked with lemon oil, chili and ginger,  in other words, heaven in a bite. We muse about, how few meters you have to step away from tourist-tourist zone, to be in the proper Thailand, the country of smiling people and spicy food.

Having found the local spirit of this friendly small town, Pawel decides to stay here on his own, he needs air and space and a break from the intense experience, that traveling with a family is, while Magdalena and I take a longtail boat to world famous Tonsai, to join the much apprehended movement workshop.

Tonsai – Move hell

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If you ask a random climber about climbing in Thailand, the destination Tonsai will probably be the first association. Combine this with 20 people that love movement,  a retreat with yoga and acroyoga workshops, throw in a slack line, there is no way, this can’t be lots of fun. – Well, it can.

If you ask a random climber about climbing in Thailand, the destination Tonsai will probably be the first association. Combine this with 20 people that love movement, a retreat with climbing, yoga and acroyoga workshops, throw in a slack line, there is no way, this can’t be lots of fun.

– Well, it can.

Imagine a beautiful peninsula, impressive limestone backdrop, the worlds most beautiful beach, no electricity, no road, no cars.

Clearly, this has once been a paradise, filled with groovy music, relaxed, people, climbers with bare feet, and the impressive limestone backdrop framing the picture.

Over the years, as the popularity grew, the steady stream of tourists, with lonely planet guides in hand arriving, to check out the most beautiful, groovy beach, has invited progress and development, cutting down of trees, building of shacks and bamboo huts,and concrete hotels, to the point where the small peninsula, is filled to the brim with accommodation and restaurants.

No power lines, means that the myriads of accommodations run noisy power generators, long tail boat transport means the garbage stays to decay.

Waste water is flowing in open sewers, garbage is piled in stinking bags behind the respective resorts, the place is on the observation list in the ministry of health for recurring food poisonings, and any dip in the water, leaves cuts and wounds in an infected state.

What has been a paradise, has now gone bad, the fall caused by that primeval sin of greed, which has led to over expansion and unsustainable development, that sadly is a thai specialty.

This is my private version of hell, the lack of authenticity, the dirt, the only thai people we meet are here to serve the tourists, they have tired eyes, the tourists are a spoiled royalty, are here to enjoy the warm sun and sand, destination unspecified, the bars, covered in weed fumes, compete for attention with blasting music.

The environment is against the very idea retreat.

We meet the other participants of the retreat, the first impression is a dissonance, coming from the difference in pace, they have just arrived from the hectic reality of the western world, symptomatic with mails that neeed attention, news that have to be read, things that need doing, their presence a tight strung chord, vibrating efficiency and stress.

It is here, that I experience one of the most dangerous moments in three years of climing.

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I lay back on the crux hold, stem my body … and fall down with the enormous hold in my hands

We are having a climbing workshop with Esben Seir, one of the coolest climbers, a super dad, and Noah, his super son, I have partnered up with Li, one of the retreat participants, an energetic swiss climbing girl, Esben has motivated us to climb hard, and I am trying to clim a 6c route.

I lay back on the crux hold, stem my body … and fall down with the enormous hold in my hands.

The fall is from the first bolt, Li is standing just under me.

As I fall, the world spins around, time slows down, I think only about her fragile head, she is just under me, I manage to twist in the air, and throw the rock during the twist, the rock drops a few hands away from Li, she is unharmed.

One of the reasons why i love climbing so much, is how I connect and communicate with my guarding angel, a real presence, when i am high on the face, stepping on minimal footholds, and have to draw a deep breath for courage. Guarding angel, or intiuition, or divine presence, it is all only different words.

My heart is racing, I thank the guarding angels, that have been on duty today, for avoiding an accident, and I decide to trust my intuition,  I feel danger, I am on survival mode, I can not connect with this place, and I decide not to climb anymore.

I count the days till the end of the retreat, and the end of our exile. I am miserable among happy people, that enjoy their holidays. Maybe this is simply because i don’t find the right spots, other climbers seems to enjoy their time  here …  but i am on survival mode, and spend my energy to protect myself from the bad vibes of this peninsula, while other people explore the peninsula, and what it has to offer, the bars, the umbrella drinks, the workshop activities.

Ko Yao Noi – back to Thailand!

We pack our backpacks, kiss the move people goodbye, fill the air with wishes for happy travel, and hurry off in the early morning to catch a ferry, that sails across the strait.

We arrive on a small island, called Ko Yao Noi.

I know, that this is a paradise, a minute after stepping down from the ferry. The pulse of the island is slow and happy, we feel the friendly presence of locals with smiles, that reach their eyes, women with covered heads, men in lungis, we see rubber plantations and cows, mangrove forest and sand.

We are guests, in a traditional village, and the villagers are welcoming us.

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My gypsy soul is happy here, I enjoy the friendliness of the locals, the developing friendships,the climbing, seeing the fierce sunrises and bleeding sunsets.

The place is steaming hot, we roll from the tiny ferry to nearby “Namtok Bungalows”, a place rumored to be the climbers hangout, and are offered a clean bungalow, with running hot water. The place is so clean, and warm and welcoming, I feel, like if I have just returned to Thailand, after a week spent in tourist-plastic-hell, I feel like crying.

I enjoy being back in Thailand. The locals look at me as a person. They smile, they are gentle, they are authentic.

My gypsy soul is happy here, I enjoy the friendliness of the locals, the developing friendships, the climbing, seeing the fierce sunrises and bleeding sunsets.

To reach the climbing crags, you have either to hire a long tail boat with a bunch of friends, or to brave a potted road trough woods on a scooter.

The local food is a treat.

There is a small breakfast place where the climbers meet in the morning, to have a rice soup, and to sample the breakfast surprise packets, coconut rice wrapped in banana leaves, baked with various fruits.

The Three Sisters is a favorite hangout, there are kisses and hugs from the chatty women, they don’t seem to grow tired of correcting our faltering thai pronunciation, they serve an amazing spicy chicken salad –  lap gao, fresh coconut smoothies, and their curries come in coconut or pineapple shells.

Other nights, the kids make a campfire on the beach, we cook dinner over the fire, and lie in the sand, looking at the stars, listening to the sound of waves.

Friendship is in the air. The community of traveling climbers is small, and when meeting, saying goodbye, and happily reuniting, friendships are growing stronger.

There is Sara and Jason, my heart is filled with love for this beautiful couple, I admire their resilience, I am inspired by their way to view and share the world as we travel trough it, the respect and observant towards local customs. It is Sara that introduces us to the breakfast surprise packages, it is messages from Sara, that keep me afloat while in survival mode on Tonsai, letting me know that there is another, more beautiful world just across the strait, and that we should go there.

There is Mary and Dan, an adventurous couple from England, traveling and climbing, our travel paths have twisted and merged so many times, every meeting brings us closer together, Dan is helping out with each of our bicycle breakdowns, Mary is a tough climbing girl, seeing her on the rock inspires me to try harder.

There is Nathan, we laugh together and cheer on each other, and we get lost on a multi pitch wall, instead of a fairly easy climb, we manage to bump into the walls hardest, and i lead, involuntarily, a 6c+ beast, before Nathan battles with topping out on a 7b+ climb. We are done, as overcooked potatoes, when we get ready to abseil down, and that is probably why I end up hanging in midair, on my rope, not able to reach the wall.

Then there is Lee, the superman, than climbs up with a rope, and saves me from the torture of having to climb up on the rope using prusik knots.

When time comes to leave, it is hard to break away from this special community.

Volontourism on Asa Lanta

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We are a dozen volunteers, that have come to Asa Lanta, to help building an unspecified academy, with clay and soil, bamboo and our bare hands.

Our next stop is Ko Lanta, where we have signed up as volunteers for a sustainable building project on Asa Lanta. Anke runs this small place with dutch efficiency, while her partner supervises the construction work, we are a dozen volunteers, that have come to Asa Lanta,  to help building an unspecified academy, with clay and soil, bamboo and our bare hands.

We tramp in the mud, mix it with sawdust and water, form the mass into bricks, and bake them in the sun. The organic structure is slowly rising, it is a feeling of deep satisfaction to see visual effects of the hard work. The other volunteers are a cheerful group of people, it is an interesting meeting of many different life paths and destinations, but the owners are aloft and their smiles don’t reach their eyes.

We have to pay a contribution to come and volunteer on Asa Lanta, and when I on one of the days off work, I am spent a day sipping smoothies and chatting with Langwa,  one of the neighbours, that runs a small guest house, with a cafe, and internet.

She can’t understand, how this neighbouring Asa Lanta works, where is the stream of volunteers coming from, why are they willing to pay more for the privilege to work a week on Asa Lanta, than she is charging her customers for board and food.

– They say, volunteer, volunteer, but it is business and money! – she exclaims with indignation.

It is not a big business, but enough to make a better living, than the neighbours.

But when we find out, how much they overcharge us, in a very friendly manner, for a trip on our day off, I begin to think, that volontourism might not be the ideal match between a cause, and a willing soul, it is a cleverly branded  product, that uses our higher emotions, like empathy and compassion, to sell an experience.

Some things should not be objects of trade, like empathy and compassion.

Ko Lao Liang

The children decide to stay longer on Ko Lanta in Langwas friendly guesthouse, while I enjoy Ko Lao Liang, an exclusive climbers paradise. It is all about climbing, no roads, no cars, no electricity, the development is managed carefully by two local inspirators, there is only one resort, and a limit on the number of guests, accommodation is in tents.

I enjoy a few days of climbing, and a fantastic gang of people. The tides make the main wall unclimbable until well after lunch, which leads to a relaxed atmosphere, spent discussing how the world is, and how it should be, a discussion led by Joseph from Switzerland, a raw vegan food artist, that starts every morning by climbing into the palms, to fetch fresh coconuts.

Together with my climbing partner Henrique, we kayak around the island, the island is tiny, an hour around in kayak, the corals move in the clear water below, as we paddle silently.

Terry is one of the really inspiring characters I meet on the climbing circuit. It is only after having known her for weeks, I discover that I am taller, so powerful is her impression. I also discover, that we have been swapping climbing partners for a while, and she travels on with Henrique, to explore Tonsai further, while I have to say goodbye to climbing and Thailand for a while.

Next stop, Malaysia

Our thai visa is running out, and on it’s last day we reunite the family, and make for Satun, from where there is a local ferry to Langkawi in Malaysia. Unfortunately, the Ko Lanta ferry was delayed for several hours, and when it finally arrives, the transport time is to short, and we miss the next ferry.
We find our selves stranded for the night in the deepest of the deep south, a place travellers are warned against, because of simmering tensions, filled with curious locals, and a fabuolous night food market, where we can enjoy our last night with the wonderful thai cuisine.

While waiting for the ferry, we sell the last of our bicycles, and we can use the money to pay the one-day overstay fine, the offence settlement is a meticulous affair,  we can watch the thai characters being filled by the local police officer, while the minutes to the ferrys’s departure tick away, in the very last moment we are allowed to sign it, and having thus pleaded guilty to the crime of overstaying, we run for the ferry, and manage to leave Thailand.

OK, Yah, 6a+

Family Gap Year Adventures, Chapter 7 – North Thailand

Crossing the Mekong river

On the other side of the Mekong river from Laos is Thailand. We have followed the river from South to North, and back to Vientiane, seeing glimpses of the greener country on the other side. As we cross the border on the bridge, we wave cheerfully:

– Bye, bye Laos!

An old chinese saying states, that you can’t cross the same river twice, but you can certainly cross a border bridge three times, if the border officials on the Laos side are to laid back to stamp your passport out. Luckily, after biking back againts the traffic, persuading the surprised Lao officials that we would like to have an exit stamp, and forward again, we are allowed into Thailand.

What we think will be a quick pit-stop to locate a thai sim card, and a map, turns out to be a lengthy affair, and the sun is descending, when we pedal off, into the countryside. Trying to keep in mind, that the traffic is now left handed.

Thailand seems so rich in contrast, one of the first sights, that surprises us, is school girls sitting with laptops in a small town cafe, sipping lattes. You can have whipped cream in your latte, well, you can have a latte, and there are flush toilets, and actual car traffic on the road.  The houses are bigger, more opulent. Portraits of the king everywhere, the king standing, the king reading a newspaper, the king looking ahead. Even on a train station, or in the cinema, the national anthem is played, everybody on their feet, honoring the king, and the country.

A week in the saddles

We meander trough Isan, the untouristy province in the north eastern corner of Thailand. People are cheerful, smiling, waving, honking the horns, as we pedal by. We spend a whole week, without meeting other white faces.

Where are we?

Our GPS has apparently got stuck  on adventure mode, it keeps getting us off the map.

The GPS seems to have a special adventure mode, that picks tiny, sandy roads winding trough rice paddies over anything asphalted, and our map is worthless, as most names of the smaller cities on the map don’t exist, instead we keep arriving into cities that are not on the map.

With some genius planning and map reading skills, we end up bicycling trough the most hilly and cold province of Thailand. Hotels are hard to find, the smaller places have signs in thai only, we learn to look out for the words “wifi” or “24”.

When we are particularly tired from the adventures supplied by our GPS, and wet from the unstopping rain, we discover that asking around in a village for homestay, leads to people pointing fingers to the next village, and then the next. Apparently, they all agree, that tourists belong in hotels.

The rain has been ongoing for 3 days in a row, when we arrive in a larger mystery town, not on our map, with a bus station, and ask around for a ride to Loei. There is none, all the buses go back, in the opposite direction, in the end we manager to barter with a pickup truck to take us for the two hours drive along a wet, potholed mountain road, a high pass, and a winding descent to the province capital of Loei.

The province happens to be the most mointanous in Thailand. And the coldest. We spent the remainder of the rainy day in Loei, resting, enjoying the feeling of not having to pedal. From extreme into extreme, the rain stops, the heat bakes down onto us, as we keep fighting the ascent up to the next mountain pass. A car stops, and a worried driver gets out, asking if we need assistance, maybe a lift. It is a discussion topic for the rest of the day, why all of us have declined the ride.

The hills start to flatten out, the ascents are not as exhausting as they have been, we bike downstream along a river, have a beautiful stop in the country side, next to a water fall with lots of swimming pools, enjoy they local thai tourists, but feel alienated among all the friendliness, so little english is spoken.

Finally, we arrive in Phitsanulok. The last 20 kilometers are not enjoyable, as we roll trough the industrial suburbs, past factories and malls, before we find the train station.

The adventurous GPS can tell us, that we have covered 560 km on our bikes. We are tired. And we want to get to Chiang Mai. We have heard, that in Thailand, you can load a bike onto the train, and inquire about this:

IMG_3992

Hobbit sized seats in a Thailand overnight train, III class.

– Yes, you can take the bicycles on the train.

– No, we don’t have any sleepers left.

So, if we want to go, then it is on a IIIrd class night train. So we load our trustworthy horses into the cargo car, and sit trough the night in tiny seats dimensioned for hobbits, miserable, tempers worn thin.

Then we discover:

– It is January 15th. We left home half a year ago.

– Happy half year of travel!

I have never in my life been less fond of traveling, moving around, as in that weary moment.

The train progresses trough the night in what feels as an unending  series of stops and jolts, and with the last jolt and stop, it is Chiang Mai station, it is 4 AM, and the world feels unreal, and we are three travelers with zombie faces, that unload the bicycles, and pedal trough the city’s night streets.

Growing roots

We have rented an apartment for 3 weeks in Chiang Mai, a break in moving around the world, a pit stop to recover some of the stamina lost on the way. Traveling should bring freedom, break you free from the routine, but now we find, that we long for a routine, look forward to waking up on the same spot every morning, for the next 3 weeks.

I  enjoy the city from the very first moments, and keep wondering why, where does this sense of connection and belonging come from. We have rented an appartment in Nimmanheim, the hipster quarter, far away from the tourist touts, small side streets lined with cafees, coffee shops, designer outlets and co-working spaces.

Roots grow quickly, nourished with a daily routine of activities that we each cherish and love: climbing, yoga, music and dance lessons for Magdalena, martial arts classes for Pawel.

I could live here, and it would be a fantastic life.

When the time comes to leave, when these precious 3 weeks have flown by, it is with a wish to stay longer. And a decision to come back, definitely.

Crazy Horse Airlines

Chiang Mai is a destination on the climbing circuit. The crag is called Crazy Horse, beautiful lines in fantastic limestone formations. The climbing circuit means, that like a current in the ocean, traveling climbers tend to follow the same path, and faces you have seen in China become buddies in Laos, and best friends in Thailand. Again, and again, I am surprised by how small the climbing world is, and rejoiced by meeting with these precious people. So as we arrive, my best buddy from Laos, Marcel, is already waiting and ready to climb.

OK, Yah, 6a+

OK, Yah, 6a+

The crag is extremely well maintained by the local climbing shop, CMRCA. Their guide contains a cartoon about how to use the crag side squat toilet, the bolting is dense, no dangerous clips.

There are two choices, either to stay in Chiang Mai town itself, as we do, enjoying all the creature comforts of the city, like yoga classes and espresso, and commute 40 kilometers to the crag, either with CMRCA‘s excellent red-truck service, or on two rented wheels. Other people opt to stay next to the crag, in village of Mae Om, peacul and quiet, complete with hot springs, where you can cook you evening eggs.

We work trough the routes, taking care to follow the shade.

I try to keep to a schedule of climbing 2 days, and resting 1 day, finding it a sustainable pace for the body, and family time.

There is a route, called *Happy Birthday*. My birthday is coming up soon, so I figure that I should try to send it. But it is nasty, pumpy and cruxy in a really mean way.

Marcel is confused:

– Why do you wan’t to project this route? It isn’t event fun?

– Because of the name.

– Because of the name?

– Yes, I find names important. They shape our reality.

He shrugs, apparently dismissing me as a nut case, but still happy to belay me whenever I feel masochist enough to give it another go.

One day it happens, Marcel, my trustworthy buddy, leaves.

It is a pang of emptiness, I don’t like goodbyes.

I climb on with Guillame, the Crazy French Guy, that we met, when hanging out at the crag.

First time I fall off, he laughs:

– Welcome to Crazy Horse Airlines, we hope you have enjoyed your flight!

He teases me into trying and sending some 6b’s, and 6b+’s, which I do with the moral support from Crazy Horse Airlines.

But despite sending many other routes, my infamous project ‘Happy Birthday’ avoids me, clearly a reason to come back again.

Happy Birthday

It is the morning of my birthday, my teenagers have been behaving really suspiciously the last few days, whispering together. We are living together so closely, that secrets seem impossible.

But still, I am surprised, when I am woken up in the morning, to the singing of our traditional polish birthday song:

– Sto lat, sto lat …

39 magic candles

It is wonderful to turn 39, surrounded by family, friends, with a content heart that does not wish for anything more, another destination on the journey called life.

An enormous bouquet of flowers hovers over me, breakfast is ready, I get a set of UNO cards, and my heart is melting from happiness already so early in the morning.

We have rented scooters for the day, one of my treats is that we get to spend the day together doing my favorite activity – climbing.

The plan also includes a visit to the nearby hot springs.

At lunch there is a birth day cake, that was supposed to be a secret, but it somehow slipped out. My favorite friends arrive to the bamboo hut, there is a rose wine to pass around, and the cake is lit with 39 candles.

I smile blissfully, and take a mighty blow. What I didnt know was, that the party arrangers have supplied magic candles.

They cheer:

– Blow, blow – as I fight against the fire, that meekly surrenders to my mighty blow, only to reappear a breath later, the top layer of chocolate is more like melted lava, my breath all but gone, when I manage to blew out all 39 magic candles.

Without setting the bamboo hut on fire.

It is wonderful to turn 39, cheers with rose wine in a plastic cup, surrounded by family, friends, with a content heart, that does not wish for anything more, happy to have arrived at another destination on the journey called life, curious to explore what this stop has in store for me.

Yoga & Love

Led by an impulse, I decide to try a class at the Wild Rose Yoga Studio among the abundance of yoga studios, that Chiang Mai has to offer. The website says, it is a practice of the heart, and warn to be prepared to get lost on the way there. I arrive trough the labyrinth of small streets, the place is beautiful, a dark wooden house, a small garden, fragrant air.

Wild Rose <3 ... being loved and supported

Wild Rose❤

I am standing in the line to register, the dark haired woman looks up at me:

– Did you take a moment to wash you feet?

– I am afraid not – I reply, feeeling disgrunted, and walk off to the bathroom, thinking what an exaggeration it is, to have the customers wash their feet, before even acknowledging their registration.

I take a moment to pause, and examine this feeling of disgrutment.

– Why am I angry?

– There is nothing wrong with washing feet, it is hygienic, it is looking out for each other.

I find such a moment rare and precious, the ability to stop, and examine an automatic, negative reaction, and transform it into a positive intention. I feel, that I have learned something important at this very moment, about being humble, and looking out for each other, like we do in a family.

– Sorry, I didn’t get your name? – I ask the dark haired woman, when I reemerge with clean feet, and pay for my class.

– Rose – she replies with a beautiful, soul warming smile.

– This explains the name of the studio – I laugh, and we hug, and now I can associate the fragrance in the studio as a smell of the love, that is in the air. Every class is a journey into the depths and mysteries of the mind, every class is filled with love and support to the brim. At times a class is popular, then the mats are crammed impossibly tight, and with every breath and move, you have to be concious about the other students around you, as our feet kiss each other, and our hands stroke our neighbour.

Something comes together for me. A relationship between the breath, and the spine. Knees touching the floor, a different awareness in the body. A new destination on my yoga journey.

Coming to the studio usually equals to several wonderful hugs with wonderful Rose, an exchange of energy, support, care.

The suffering art of goodbyes

Travelling is wonderful, one of the upsides is awesome people you meet on the road.

One of the downsides is the goodbyes, when paths that have happily merged, are parting again.

Goodbye to Marcel, my trustworthy climbing partner for three countries in a row. The day before Marcel had to leave, he makes a strategic move from Mae Om the village, to Chiang Mai – the city with a bus station. We manage to cram Marcel, the climbing equipment, the big backpack and myself onto my scooter. He stays over the night in our appartment, when we are woken up in the middle of the night by a fire alarm.

The corridors are filled with smoke, we are on the 7th floor, the fire smoke is coming from the 5th floor.

The kids disappear running down the staircase, we stroll out in a more steady pace, collecting keys and passports. When we are down, we realize:

– Damn, we could have abseiled out of the window.

– We have enough rope, two in fact.

Having thus missed an opportunity to show off, we mingle with the neighbours, in sleeping gowns and slippers, waiting until the fire fighters declare the fire under control. Next morning everyone is sleepy and heavy headed after the nightly disturbance. A last pizza, and it is time for Marcel to leave. I feel a pang of emptiness, as I cross the road, having waved goodbye.

Goodbye to Rose, my beloved yoga teacher, how can you build up so much love in such a short time?

Goodbye to our enthusiastic thai teacher Lanwa, the co-working space of Mana, with its sweet owners, new fast friends among expats and travelling couchsurfers, and the goodbye to those from the gang of climbing buddies, that leave the circuit for now.

It is hard to leave. It hurts to say goodbye to people, that have found a place in your heart. But once you have bought the tickets, the mind is set on going.

I look out of the window, as the train slowly moves from the platform, tickets in hand, mind set of going, a piece of heart left behind, in Chiang Mai. I think we have this places, where our heart belongs, dispersed around the globe, and travellng is about finding them, and reuniting with the energy and inspiration, each place where we belong, can offer us.

For me it is a view on a lake in Northern Lapland, a mountain summit in the polish Tatra mountains, a monastery in Tibet, and now also a dark wood yoga studio in Chiang Mai.

Southwards

We are moving to the next stop on the climbing circuit, the next destination is Camp Nam Pha Pa Yai, Thailands most cozy climbing camp, only one hour by train north of Bangkok.  together with Terry, Marianne, Mary and Dan, some awesome climbing friends, and I admire the patience of my children, as they have to adapt to yet another climbing destination, not being into climbing at all.

We bike the 20 kilometers from the train station to the camp, it is too hot, we are melting, have pitstops along the way with water and fruits, decide that bicycling is not fun at these lattitudes.

Nam Pha Pa Yai is a relaxed playground, the camp built around a riverbend, we sleep in our tents, the familiar portable homes, the inside being the same, whether we pitch them in Denmark, Russia, Mongolia, Tibet or Thailand. Every morning, after a late and lazy coffee and breakfast, as the crag gets into shade 11’ish, we zip to the crag on the provided zip line, the approach must be nominated as the funniest. In the evening, everybody plays “monkey”, guests and staff, it is a game of throwing pegs in the evening, I send my first 6b+ onsight, with the beautiful name “Local Solution to Global Confusion”, whose significance I can discuss with my climbing buddy Moose.

Four days pass quickly when playing, and having fun, and an early morning we break up camp, and hurry to catch the morning train to Bangkok, and the next chapter of our family adventure.

Monkey time

Family Gap Year Adventures – Chapter 6, Laos – a pretty laid back land

Sabei sabei

One of the first expressions you learn as a visitor in Laos, is  “Sabei, sabei“, meaning don’t worry, no problem.

– Bus is 6 hours late? Sabei, sabei!

– Bus is 10 hours late? Sabei, sabei!

– You don’t have the stamp in your passport? Sabei, sabei!

– Shop closed? Sabei, sabei!

– Shop closed again? Sabei, sabei!

With such a heavy use of sabei, sabei, you feel that Laos is the backwater of South East Asia. Traffic is sparse, the population is more often sighted in a hammock, than rushing around, and it is part of the hospitality that you have to wait a few minutes or quarters of an hour, before the waiter, or receptionist, or clerk rises from the hammock, or couch, or chair, and is ready to face you. Some people accidentally mistake this ability to be laid back as rude, but nothing could be further from the truth. Time is an abundant luxury in this otherwise poor country, that doesn’t need to be watched, or accounted for. People seem immune to efficiency, the contagious disease of western culture. I remember Momo, and how she dealt with the time thieves, and am lead to believe that there must be a laotian connection.

Ziplines! Jungle fun!

We left Vietnam in a very comfortable sleeper bus from Dong Ha, and arrived hassle-free in Pakse, southern Laos. The mighty Mekong river flows slowly, the city hugs the river shores, and the pace of the city follows the same rhytm. We are here in order to try an eco adventure in the jungle, called the Tree Top Explorer, lots of fun on zip-lines of several hundreds of meters, canopy walks and swimming in a waterfall, all embedded in the green jungle of the misty Bolaevan plateau, famous for aromatic coffee.IMG_9654

The famous coffee is served every morning and dinner, cooked in a filter over a cook fire, strong and aromatic indeed. Accommodation is in small huts built in the crowns of huge trees, access true to the camp style, by zip line only. There is a shared kitchen and platform, overlooking the valley, the focal point of which is a majestic waterfall.

– Namtok – our guide Bun repeats patiently.

“Nam” is water, “tok” is falling, and all our activities are concentrated around the waterfall, we zipline above, below, bathe in the water, and gaze at the spectacle when sipping our coffees. After sunset, as the tropical night descends quickly, accompanied by a choir of cicadae, we zip into our tree top hut with a cat under one arm, a preemptive measure towards another inhabitant of the jungle trees, the rat.

We were thrilled, this trip is pure, destilled fun. Things are well organized, we eat picnic lunch off banana leaves, and can follow the enjoyable program, a mixture of zipping along the lines, trekking, swimming, and relaxing in the beautiful jungle camp, taking in the amazing view.

Climbing paradise

Next destination is Green Climbers Home, a climbing camp in Thakhek.

We look around for bus tickets, and pick the one that promises a 6 hours trip as opposed to the 10 hours, the other vendors are selling, only to arrive in Thakhek … 10 hours later. It is dark, and we have to bike to the climbing camp under the starlit sky, and the feeble light of the head lamps. After an hours bike ride trough the darkness, the climbing camp appears, a flood of light, we can hear the laughter.

When we arrive, I see friendly faces, that we have met in China, climbing bags skattered around, the talk the same at all climbing destinations in the world, this is my tribe.

We stay for two weeks, I enjoy the rush of climbing, while Pawel and Magdalena are reasonably bored. It is hard to climb again after so many weeks of abstinence, luckily I can team up with Marcel, a familiar face from Yangshuo in China, and he is patient while I freak out on the low grades, and the power slowly returns, I redpoint a 6a+, with shaking Elvis legs, and feel as a climber again.

We spend rest days going to the city of Thakhek, there is a single shop with ice creams, and wifi, a massage joint, salt baked fish at the stall next to the river, where one can sit and look across at the Thailand side.

I enjoyed the stay at Green Climbers Home so much, I didnt even wish for Christmas presents, but Christmas is only two days away, and we have to go to Vientiane, and pick up Solvej, a friend of Magdalena’s, that has decided to join us for the Christmas holidays. When we are leaving, I wish I could have stayed in this paradise.

Our Christmas Miracle

Our Christmas Miracle was to find Jungle house, an amazing guest house run by amazing people, Mike and Xoukiet. I am short listing this guest house as a candidate for the title “Best in all the world”. It is a very special place, mainly due to the personalities of the two people, that run it. Their home is a beautiful house, with a junglelike garden, and from the moment you arrive, you feel like a dearly missed friend. We enjoyed really roal breakfasts in the mornings, and the pleasure of sipping Mike’s gin & tonic, sitting above the water pond while listening to the frogs chatting at sunset, and the highlight of each evening, meeting other guests at the dinner table, engaging in fierce philosophical/political/cultural/../ discussions.

Our Christmas Miracle was to meet Mike and Xoukiet. This couple, both deeply engaged in making the world a better place to leave, fundamental humanitarians, was a huge inspiration. Xoukiet battles human traffiking, Mike has founded the COPE center, to help victims of land mines, cluster bombs, and other effects of the Secret War, bringing more bombs to this quiet backwater country, than any other place in the world.

– We should not aim for what is possible to do, but for what is right to do. – recounted Mike, of his stance at the discussion of the UN committee for cleaning up the country from bombs.

– How many casualties should we accept? 0!

Things become very simple, when you hold such a fundamental view, when you hold a plastic molded leg in your hand, looking into eyes of the crippled human, whose life you want to improve, then war, bombs, the war rhetoric is meaningless, we are humans, and should treasure our lives, as a superior value, not something that we have the right to take away from others, diminish, or end.

Our Christmas Miracle was a dozen of strangers, meeting around a table to celebrate a special day, far away from our homes, determined to launch a new friendship, and our miracle was a beautiful fusion of traditions.

So we went from sharing the polish “oplatek”, sent by my mom, dancing around the christmas three danish style, complete with running around the house, and singing “12 days of Christmas” in unison, with Mikes powerfull bass voice delivering “fiiiiive gooooolden rings“, enjoying listening to a story read alout, that was published over a century ago, and has been cherished by generations of Boddingtons since, trough sharing the warmth and joy of being human, and together.

The house was quiet and asleep, when we managed to connect with my family trough Skype, the time difference such, that they were just beginning to gather around the food. When my mothers voice came crackling trough the static, I felt a lump in the throat, felt the enormous distance, so far away from home 119, 17, as opposed to 10, 55

Elephants!

Next stage in our journey is a bumby ride along the Mekong river to Sayabouli, where we have signed up as volunteers on a paid program in the Elephant Conservation Centre (ECC). Rattle is the only word I can find to describe the progress of a bus in Laos, and our bus rattles north, together with the suffering passengers, the helper boy distributes vomit bags, grabbed by eager hands. A mommy, daddy and a toddler are seated next to me, the little family takes turns vomiting, the plastic bag wobbles between our seats, brimming full with a “road soup” of undefinable color.

After too many miserable hours, we stand with two legs on the red ground again, the bus station being a raised platform in the woods, excited to see the elephants of the center, to learn about our duties as volunteers. Soon a beaten up truck arrives, and after more bumbing around, we arrive at the camp, a collection of simple bamboo huts, the location incredibly beautiful, surrounded by a magical lake, that mirrors the sky, the clouds, the sunrise and sunset. IMG_2969

I remembered the buddist story about a nun, that saw the mirror image of the moon in her bucket, while carrying water, and understood the nature of things, showing thus, that enlightenment can be achieved doing mundane chores, and meditation is not anymore or less fancy, than carrying water in a bucket.

Or looking at a magical lake.

We meet the other two volunteers, a polish couple living in Scotland, and the six of us hang out together, sharing the same fate.

There isn’t really any work for us to do, and this being Laos, the staff seems worried about us not to over exert ourselves. The days pass with hanging around the elephants, or swinging in hammocks, every night has a camp fire, music and lao lessons.

Riding on the neck of the elephants is fun, but even more enjoyable is just being around these magnificient animals, sensing them. IMG_2951The mahouts are so gentle and caring, the look of concern and love on their face, when they speak to their elephant, the mighty animals are controlled using the voice and body language only, no metal hooks or other malicious inventions. Every day, there is a boat trip to visit the nursery, where a 23 months pregnant elephant lady is awaiting the birth, her belly huge, we are hoping to see the newborn, but the baby will arrive after we have left the center. The staff explains, how the elephant, the very national symbol of Laos is threatened, the species on the border of extinction, as natural reproduction is hindered by economical considerations, and 10 elephants die for every baby that is born. The purpose of the center is to provide veterinary services, and support mahouts with pregnant females, so that they do not loose their income for the two years of pregnancy and three years of nursing, that a baby elephant requires.

Being volunteers, we feel an urge to contribute to both the cause and the paradise, and we settle on a bit of gardening, doing a yoga class, and organizing a treasure hunt for the kids in the camp, which is well received by the target group.

The owners invite us volunteers to stay for the New Years Eve, and we say goodbye to the old year with a barbecue party, complete with a roasted calf, foie grass and lots of Beer Lao.

When we leave, it is with a feeling, that we leave a paradise.

Luang Prabang and north

Next stop, after the mandatory bus rattle, is Luang Prabang, surprisingly touristy, supplied by a steady stream of farang’s, meandering around the colourful markets, and the majestic temples. Not being a family of temple explorers, really, we want to see more of the simple life, and rent scooters, to ride 70 km north to Ban Na Ham. That is where we meet friends of the family that runs our guest house in Luang Prabang, and we are treated to a self-organized home stay.

The whole village is suddenly there, curious about us, we about them. Life is simple, belongings few, the house is clean, the people generous. We go with the boys to set the fishing nets in the river, a local school teacher helps with translating. We are treated to a royal dinner, and even more royal breakfast, with sweet rice cooked in bamboo over the fire, and a fish, and chicken soup, made from a chicken, that was walking proudly around a few moments ago.

We visit the village, walk among the houses where women are weaving, and give an english lesson at our teachers school, teaching the students to clap their hands to “If you are happy and you know it”. When we are leaving, we are leaving another paradise.IMG_3861

Birthday girl

It is Magdalenas 16 years birthday, when we wake up before sunset, as our night bus from Luang Prabang has sped trough the potholes of the mountain road, and has arrived in Vientiane hours ahead of schedule.IMG_3895

– Happy Birthday! – we hug the sleepy eyed main person of the day, and share a jar of cookies, as we wait on the bus platform, atop of our luggage, for  Mike to bring us to our beloved Jungle House.

The night is a hardly a surprise,  the Jungle House style elegant dinner, with stimulating converstation, champaign to celebrate the birthday girl, and a wonderful chocolate cake!

Having been on the road for a while, travelling, sleeping, eating, being together 24 hours a day, it is really hard to keep a surprise, and the birthday girl does not sound very surprised when the surprise is revealed.

I have found Backstreet Academy,  a company that connects travellers with local people, that have something to teach, the experience is thus authentic, and not to reproduce on mass scale, a platform worth supporting. The surprise we picked, is a lao style cooking class, in the garden of a family, the father and mother in law look at us, as we are instructed by the pregnant wife, the husband tends the fire, and a young student handles the translation, everybody enthusiastic  about teaching us how to cook the food. We relaxed while grilling the vegetables on the cooking fire, washed, peeled, and pounded at the ingredients, and the result was a delicous lunch with 5 dishes, that we could consume with our new Lao friends. IMG_3920

Goodbye Laos

Time passes fast, visas, even when prolonged, run eventually out, and we have to say goodbye, leave the cosy nest we have in Jungle House, and hug Mike and Xoukiet goodbye. We continue the adventure on our bikes, as we approach the border bridge to Thailand. After a half year of travelling, we have discovered how time flows in a different, slow, pace, and that small pieces of Paradise can be found on our planet, and Laos has an amazingly high density of these small Paradises …

Vietnamese style siesta

Family Gap Year Adventures – Chapter 5, Vietnam

Holy Hanoi!

It was dark, when we arrived in Hanoi by train from China, at a very unholy time, 5 AM. IMG_3661

With a few, even less holy, thoughts sent in the direction of the master mind, that planned this international train connection, we collected our bags, and found there was very little we could do, except walking out of the train station … the time being to late too sleep, and too early to go to our couchsurfing hosts, or anything else … as we walked, and the dawn approached, the city started waking up, the first signs beings small stalls opening, and we had our first taste of the staple vietnamese breakfast, a  Pho soup with fresh herbs, a delicious novelty, and a treat compared to the chinese breakfast porridge.

With some food in the stomach, daylight to heighten the mood, having located an ATM, that made us into Dong millionaires, and a SIM card, we could relax, and have a look around.

What a difference, our eyes being used to chinese paradoxes !

The traffic is like a crazy real time computer game, where you have to move the pedestrian across a multi-directional flood of bicycles. It can’t be done, but somehow it happens, you arrive on the other side of the street.  The pace is busy, but nowhere as hectic, as in the chinese mega cities. More smiles around, people squat, talk, chat, smile.

The traces of french colonization of Indochina are sweet.

Bakeries, bread, cakes. Coffee.

I tasted the vietnamese cofee, kafe nou, brewed in a little aluminium pressurerizer on top of condensed milk, and my reaction was:

– Hallelujah!

The coffee is thick, kicking strong, sweetened with condensed milk. After two months in China, the coffee less country, the pleasure of sipping a kafe nau is beyond words.

IMG_3735

The desserts are also divine.

Creme brulee, an assortments of jellies made of frIMG_3678uit juice, mixed with tapioca, coconut milk and ice cubes. The price tag of such a treat is 20.000 VND, or 0,5 Euro.

I found, that I longed for somebody to adopt me, so I could quit traveling, and stay in this country.

Our hosts, Travis and Zuza, opened up their home, and we found the city of Hanoi to be friendly, comfortable, full of small hidden wonders.

Is it a surprise, that we ended up staying in much longer than planned? In the end I felt that we either have to go, or rent an appartment (the downstairs one was free) and move in.

Bye bye train, hello bicycle

We have travelled from the central train station in Warszawa, to Hanoi, about 12.000 km, all the way by train. We did a high five, and then decided to change the mode of transportation, feeling that we had seen to many trains from the inside. The decision was to buy bicycles. A quick look at the map, it should be feasible to go from Vietnam to Singapore. It would make sense to sell the bicycles again in Singapore, as there are only islands between its southern tip and Australia, our ultimate destination.

We visited a few bicycle shops, and thought that second hand touring bikes might be a good value. Something proven in battle might be better than a shiny new product of unknown quality. We made acquaintance with George, a mechanical whizz at from the famous Bicycle Collective, a specialist in touring bikes. Or, so we thought, at least.

IMG_3687

George, our pusher from the Hanoi Bicycle Collective, equipped our new steel horses for the ride.

George, was set up with the task of equipping our new steel horses for the long ride. After we agreed on a budget, his mantra was:

– I guarantee you, this is good quality

and another favorite saying:

– This is the only place in town, where you don’t buy a chinese piece of shit!

In the beginning there was lots of love, but as we rode some kilometers, and the bikes kept breaking down, the good karma dwindled.

But, anyway, it was really time to move on, and instead of becoming Zuza and Travis’s new neighbours, we studied the map, packed and repacked to fit our backpacks on the bike racks, saddled up, and finally, after several delays, left Hanoi.

Country road

And off we went.

Biking out of Hanoi took the best part of a morning, and we decided, after getting lost around the lakes and tricky one way streets of Hanoi,  that a map, and a look at Google Maps in the morning, is not enough to navigate. A local grocery store solved the problem, and sold a phone card and a scratch code for 3G internet, for about 5 USD. The friendly lady understood enoug sign language to help set it up, and we could continue with our efforts to locate the countryside, now equipped with a GPS device.

Trip map

Click the link below, to see where we went on our 500 km bike trip in Vietnam :

It is a sweaty business to bicycle in Vietnam. After a while the ass grows numb, the dust is covering the sweat, leaving a sticky texture on the skin, it is hot, and what is supposed to be holiday fun, is in fact hard work. Our family of extreme b-type persons, late sleepers and night owls started getting up 6 AM, just to beat the heat.

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It is really hard work riding a bicycle trough vietnamese country side.

We managed to ride between 60 and 80 km a day, covering about 500 kilometers, until one of the bikes, that was having more and more serious problems, with a rattling backwheel, finally refused to move, the axis being broken.

We went to Mai Chau, and hit the Ho Chi Minh trails south from there.

Most places we stayed in “Ngha Nhi” – simple guest houses, no english spoken, no frills, sometimes clean. Once we were lucky, and found a hot spring spa resort next to the road, another time a homestay in a stilt house.

Hospitality extreme - we thought we booked a bed for the night, and were surprised by a dancing party on the thin bamboo floor.

Hospitality extreme – we thought we b

We had to fight with some hard core mountain passes to get there, we should have taken the darker shade on the map as a warning. What we looked for, was simply a bed for the night, and we were surprised, as a troup of girls arrived, and started a dancing party on the thin, thin bamboo floor of the stilt house. One of the dances involved jumping over banging bamboo sticks, and we were scared whether the floor would crack open under our merry jumps, but fortunately it didn’t.

This extremely hospitable family, have set up a home stay, and wanted to attract tourists to their off the beaten track village, using the platform of airbnb. I loved this combination, a surprising fusion of old traditions, simple life in a bamboo hut, and a modern platform, that brings sustainable tourism directly to a community.

Shortcut by train

After 8 days in the saddle, hot and exhausted, and having to deal with a bicycle, where the wheel was runing more sideways than forward, we decided to take a shortcut by train, and hopefully get to a place with better mechanics, than what we could find in the country side.

After a strategical discussion, we opted for 2 days of rest at a swimming pool, and decided to take the train from Vinh to Dong Hoi – to save some steam for our up coming caving trip.

The procedure was very simple and civilized

I have drawn on a piece of paper 3 people and 3 bicycles, and showed it to the lady in the ticket booth. She gave me a nice smile, and asked, in english, laughing at my surprised face:

– So, where do you want to go?

– Dong Hoi – I replied.

– First you need to buy tickets for people, and then you can post your bicycles in the goods carriage. – she explained

The posting happens in a second office, close to the gates that lead to the tracks. You are given a receit, pay a fee of a few dollars, and all the loading and unloading is handled by railway staff, while you can enjoy your ride, and watch the hills rolling by, happy not to be pedalling there.

A few hours later, as we unload from the train, we can smell the South Chinese Sea

Epic cave adventure

Having heard, thatthe worlds largest cave has been discovered in the Phong Nha CavesIMG_9427 area of Vietnam in 2011, only a few years ago, we booked a 3 day trek of the Tu Lan system, with Oxalis, our adventure operator, and I really mean adventure.

When the jeep cam to pick us up in the morning, it has been raining continuosly for 3 days, and continued to rain, as our hopeful group of 8 went trough the security briefing. Equipped with life wests, helmets and head lamps, we thought we were ready for some fun, unaware of the epic adventure ahead.

And it was truly epic.

Nobody died. We had lots of fun. I don’t remember if I have ever been that muddy in my life. After about half an hour of walking, we had to cross a river by swimming, with all clothes and gear on, and we continued the wet journey, from jungle trail, to cave, to river. Our guide kept saying:

– Careful, it’s slippery – when we were navigating the steep, steep jungle tracks, and he was absolutely right. Sometimes, there was a change of terrain, and we could hear as we were sliding, or stumbling down:

– Careful, it’s very smooth!

We were trying to crawl out of a cave, and I gasp, when I see the first of many gigantic spiders, situated on the roof of a tiny squeeze through tunnel

Our guide reassures us:

– Don’t worry. It’s friendly, it’s vietnamese.

It was at a famous cave with three whirlpools, that the adventure got an epic twist, as half of our group was swept away by the current, towards the gaping mouth of the cave. Luckily, we had a spanish guy, Jesus, with us, and he really lived up to his name, swimming to the rescue with a lifeline.

The nights were cosy, with campfire, jokes, friendly interaction with the vietnamese staff, a shared sense of bonding, of surviving this adventure together.

We return to our hotel, the Phong Nga Farm Stay, very wet, with a stinking bag filled with our stinking, muddy belongings, and stupid smiles on our faces.

DMZ and goodbye

The Phong Nha caves are just north of the DMZ, and sensible connections to Laos are just south of DMZ. So I figured it was time for indulging some pacifist propaganda into the teenagers. We crossed the DMZ together with Tam, our guide and American War veteran. The Vinh Moc tunnels, a complex of tunnels 15-21 meter undeground, designed to hide the population of a whole, heavily bombed village, made a great impression. Their motto “to be or not to be”, shed a new light on this thin worn quote, in order to survive the heavy bombing, the local people had to dig underground, and spend months and months in the tunnels.

This was our last day of our one month stay in Vietnam, we visited only the northern part, something has to be left for the next around the world trip.

From Dong Ha, we booked a bus ticket, and were suprised with an extremely comfortable direct bus to Pakse, Laos, where we continued the family adventure.

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Family Gap Year adventures – Chapter 4, China

Alien, welcome to China

The train from Ulan Bator, Mongolia to Bejing is a party on wheels, as many of our fellow passangers have made an early start on celebrating the end of the transsiberian journey, and as we roll along the vast, sandy reaches of the Gobi desert, wine is poured, and the spirits are merry.IMG_9044

The vast, empty landscape is replaced by high rise housing, and chinese signs, and we stop for a change of wheels, and visa formalities at the border.  My son Pawel was 12 when his passport photo was made, and being now 19,  has matured, and we sense problems as the serious faced chinese border guard asks my son:

– Look at me

Silent scrutiny, minutes pass, support is called on, and arrives running, I try very hard not to laugh of the officers concentrated faces, as he takes on the task of recognizing a child in a young mans face.

– Follow me!

We exchange looks in the train cupe, the fellow passenger from the upper berth volunteers:

– Can I go to Tibet instead of him, I mean, if he is detained?

After a longer scrutiny, by three officers staring back and forth at my son, and the picture, and in the end a decision is made

– Alien, welcome to China

They hand us an “Alien registration card”, which we dutifully fill out, and hand over. This sense of being an alien will follow us trough our whole stay in China.

An anthill called Beijing

We arrived in the anthil called Beijing by train from Mongolia, from one of our planets most sparsely populated places, in the comfort of your sleeper, in less than 24 hours.
The city is green. We are surprised. We have expected ugly, grey industry, but what we see is a green and modern city.
Broad roads, with lanes for bicycles, that whizz by soundlessly, electric.

We stay on 17th floor with our new chinese couchsurfing friends, Nic and Emily, that make the transition somewhat easy, and take on the tedious task of teaching us basic chinese. Words like tea,  茶:

– Cha – I try again.

– No, no. Cha. – Nic is patient.

I can’t hear the difference. Nic asks me to make my vovels longer.

– Chaaaaa ?

– No … Cha.

Chinese is not easy, being a tonal language, and our ears and throats not being used t. After about a week of trying, I manage to order my first cup of 茶.

The long march

We leave Beijing, and spend two weeks trekking in Tibet. On the train back from Tibet to mainland China, snowclad soaring peaks are replaced by gently rolling hills, and we arrive in Guillin,  a go-to town in the humid Guangxi province.

I am happy, because my family has a tradition of travelling together, and my mom has decided to join us for a part of our trip trough China, and we are looking forward to exploring the country side together.IMG_9255

We are met by Jun, our guide from the small agency Backroad of China, that has arranged a village to village trek for us. Jun is not happy to see our Meindl mountain boots, and suggest that we replace them by sandals or sneakers.

– But these are very good shoes. They are made for mountains! – I protest

– No, chinese mountains are different, these shoes are not good.

This will be a recurring point of discussion each night, but we manage to stand by our decision, and I am quite happy, as the chinese backroads turn out to be impossibly steep trails, made in tramped clay, smooth and slippery.  Apart from having her own opinions about mountain footwear, Jun is a fantastic guide, very caring, and has a personality that makes her the perfect companion:

– I like being chatty-chatty – she says.

– Me too – I admit.

The villagers we meet are amazing, smiling faces, hands lifted in greeting, children running out from their homes, yelling:

– Hello

We visit three different minorities during our eight days trek in the country side, and sleep in stilt houses, with local families, with varying conditions of beds and toilets, but unchanging hospitality and friendliness.

We walk among rice terraces, admiring how they are sculpted, flowing down into each vally along the geodesic curves of the surrounding hills, colored golden, ripe for harvest. Wily old men and women bent under the heavy load, happy faces carrying the rice home. The villages seem inhabited by young children and elder people, the young generation being away in metropol centers, having joined the powerful industry as migration workers.

– Your breakfast is ready.IMG_9281

The family mother has been up very early, to go to the rice field and collect fresh ingredients. The bowl is full of fried grasshoppers.

– Eat, eat.

– Drink, drink!
Dutifuly, we crunch the grass hoppers, and wash down with our oil tea, tea made from the fruit of tea trees, with salt, peanuts and popped rice.

A new day is waiting, we tie our boots, wave goodbye, and set off to the next little gem, hidden behind a pass, or in the next valley, nested among golden rice paddies.

After 10 days, we reach our final destination, and it is time for my mom to go back to Denmark.

In the car to the airport, my children admit:

– Holidays in China are like a long march, – with a reference to chairman Mao, and

– We need holidays from the holiday.

That’s right. When you travel for a year, you need holidays from the holiday.

We wave goodbye to my mom in the airport, sad that this part of the adventure is over, but excited about going to have holiday from holidays.

Yangshuo, a chinese village

No other places do the chinese seem more crazy, busing in huge crowds to experience this authentic rural village, that has become a sea full of people, fully equipped to serve as a 24/7 karaoke joint.

According to confirmed accounts, this has been a small village until a few years ago

Internal tourism brings buses, electric carts to whizz the passengers around, everyone seeking the quietness, fresh, sweet water of the country side, the meditative sight of rice pIMG_9293addies

About 5 kilometers away from the city center, the massive amount of hotels named “Village retreat”, “Quiet forest”, “Secret garden” is thinning, and we see that the country side is still beautiful, with curiously shaped carst peak, overgrown by lush vegetation, wrapped in mist.

Yangshuo is also a climbing hot spot, and the reason why we rent a room for 10 days. The teenagers can have a “holiday from the holiday” by the pool, I plan to rent climbing gear and try out this famous lime stone.

Egg, Winebottle and Swiss Cheese – this could be a foundue-recipe, but its not, these are names of crags,wonderful climbing, and somewhat random grading.

Climbers inn is the place, where people show up in the morning, nine’ish, looking for partners and sharing a ride to the crag in a mini bus. I team up with Jordi, a recently arrived spanish teacher, still somewhat shocked by China being China.

Four months on the road without climbing have set me back, and as I fight for the moves, the routes fight back.  I am having a fantastic time, meeting a wondeful mosaic of the tribe “climbing people”, and 10 days pass way to quickly.
Our last night, I buy drinks at the Rusten bolt, and feel a sense of belonging, saddened by having to leave the next day.

Panda keepers helper

We have signed up for a two week volunteer program at the Bifengxia Panda base, and expectations are pretty high as we ride the train from Guiling to Chengdu, excitement being fueled by amazing memories from the Great Baikal Lake vounteering program.

After having paid the uniform rental fee, uniform washing fee, and management fee, we are equipped with rubber gloves and jumper suits, assigned to a panda keeper and panda each, and learn from our panda keeper how to scoop up the panda poo.

The pandas are fed every day at 08300, 1100, 1330 and 1445, and besides cleaning the cages in the morning, there is really nothing meaningful for us to do in between the feedings. This gives the days a rather depressing, and boring rythm to the day, that is only brightened by the actual interaction with the pandas, that love the carrots and panda cakes. The animals love to sleep, and as we watch the lazy the day away, we do the same.

Things are not made better by our accomodation. It is a pretty run down hostel, a rather sorry place, with mold in the corners and I-couldn’t-care-less-about-you attitude among the staff, it’s only raison d’être being the steady stream of volunteers.

We try to escape this depresssing setup in our weekend, with a 3 day trip to Emei shan, and spend two days climbing a staircase of about 15.000 steps, in the steady rain, saddened by how the chinese national park has turned this magnificent mountain into a gigantic, concrete stair case. On Sunday morning, we get up early, and see that rain has been replaced by snow, and fog by busload after busload of chinese tourists, eager to visit the holy mountain by cable car, and both hikers and cable car hoards are met by the glow of the gigantic multi-dimensional statue of the future Buddha.

China weary

We have been travelling for two months in the Middle Kingdom, where the tiniest speckle on the map, turns out to be a loud, million-something size city. Most people are friendly and helpful, but others start saying “Mei you”/Don’t have, even before you have opened your mouth, seing a long-nose face. Being a partial analphabet, and fighting with the tricky tones, does not make it an easy country to travel trough. As our visa is running out, and the budgetted Yuan supply dwindles, chinese cities start to seem all alike, and our patience with loud crowds has been worn rather thin.

We are ready to move on, and I am full of excitement, and a sense of new adventure, when we board the night train to Hanoi.

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Family Gap Year adventure – Chapter 3, Tibet

Getting there – worlds highest train ride

– Tashi Delek!

The woman is smiling, her dark face beautiful, a shower of colored braids surrounds her slender figure, a traditional dress, a baby strapped to her back.

I reply, to her, and to the line of dark faces around:

– Tashi Delek.

This means “hello” in Tibetan, and the short exchange has already let me run out of Tibetan vocabulary, the means of communication left to us being looking at each other patiently, smiling. We are in the waiting room of Xining station, the train to Lhasa has been running 1, and now 2 hours late, people are tired of moving the line back and forth, with their suitcases, sacks, cardboard boxes and precious bundles, as we are trying to follow the chinese signs announcing our train, that keep jumping to other gates.

We are waiting to ride the worlds highest train line, a feat of chinese engineering, leading up to the plateau trough a series of passes, the highest one 5200 m, tracks built directly on permafrost, leading into the holy, mythical city of Lhasa.

I am clutching a pouch with my passport, train ticket and travel permit.  Precious, magic documents.

The permit circus

Agata PermitThe paper work to obtain these was not for the fainthearted.

You need a chinese visa to go to Tibet. And a special travel permit. They will tell you NOT to mention the fact that you are going to Tibet, when you apply for a chinese visa.

You can not apply for the travel permit to Tibet without a chinese visa.

And you can not buy a train ticket to Lhasa without the travel permit.

And you can not get the travel permit, without your ticket.

(And you need to document your itinerary with tickets to obtain the visa, but thats another story).

We were still in Denmark, looking at a map of the world, planning our trip by letting fingers wander, if you turn left after Mongolia, you go to Korea and Japan, if you turn right, you go to Tibet. Seeing the improbability of traveling in big zig-zags, the decision was firm:

– Lets go to Tibet.

Despite the disadvantages, such as that free travel is not possible, we found a tibetan owned company that could provide the mandatory guide service, and started the somewhat absurd process of applying for travel permits.

We was told that it is almost there, almost ready. At least, well under the way. Only one stamp was still missing.

Weeks flew by, and we found ourselves waiting in Beijing, train tickets booked, train leaving next day, but still no permits.

– We need just one more stamp.

Then it arrived, luckily, on the day we were leaving, and we could praise our good fortune, as passengers are declined boarding the train to Lhasa without this document.

Lhasa

Everybody, even the dark skinned tibetan natives that have linguered longer in the lowlands, arrive in Lhasa short of breath. The plateau is at the serious altitude of 3600 m.

– Welcome to Tibet. I will show you many, many beautiful things in my country

We are greeted by our mandatory guide, given white silk scarves, and taken to one of the few hotels, that are licensed to admit foreigners.

We have arrived in Lhasa.

The first impression is soldiers, police, everywhere, on every street and corner there is a tank, or a police car, or a booth. Brought there to guarantee safety to the liberated people.

The city is beautiful, the dignified, white Potala palace, empty home of Dalai Lama , the Jhomsong temple, a place of power, sizzling with energy, surrounded by pilgrims day and night.

We are here for 2 days, to acclimatize, before we can leave for Kharta valley.

These are happy days, as on this part of our travel our family of three is joined by my sister and mum, and everybody enjoys the reunion. We get a foot massage performed by blind therapists, and have a hairdresser apply the Lhasa hair style with colorful braids to our hair. We watch the movie “Seven years in Tibet“, and marvel at actually being in Lhasa.

Old Kharta Valley Trek

We are driving trough the country side, so slo….ooooo…ooooo…wly….. The police check points on the way give time limits to tourist cars, arriving to early or to late warrants a fine, giving us an average speed of 60 km/h for several hundreds of kilometers.  After 3 days of driving, when everybody is grumpy and tired, we arrive at a river, a rather dirty camp site, and put up our tents.

Next morning we are waken up by yells, as the yaks have arrived, together with two yak boys, that can whistle and shout commands for the yaks to follow.

Accompanied by the boys whistles, and the yaks bells, we set out on an eight day trek to the high and remote Kharta Valley, in hope of catching a view of the worlds highest mountain.

We are not lucky with the weather, most of the days it is raining, at night the temperature drops below zero, we have strong wind, fog and snow, low visibility. We have and odd problem with our guide, he tends to wander of chatting with the cheerful yak-boys, leaving our group in the fog banks, unsure of directions.

Somehow it is difficult to explain to our guide, that he should prioritetize walking with us, the clients, as there is really no other reason to have a guide, that to show the way. We have some heated discussions and clashes, trying to explain this to our impatient man. After a long, and very wet day, it is easy to build up anger.I remind myself of a fundamental Aikido lesson:

– Look at your feet, before you walk.

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Our family posing with a view of the East side of the snow clad beauty – Chomolungma / Mt Everest .

The clouds are gone in the morning, and we get to pose with the snowclad beauty – Chomolungma, or Mt Everest in English. From here, to get back to civilization, it is either turning around and walking back for 5 days, or continuing towards the highest point of the trek, the Lhangma La pas of 5400 m.

Our coldest camp is the highest, at 4950m. Thats when we discover that the sleeping bags are wet. The potatoes are dry, though, as they have been riding in the sole plastic bag. And we are almost out of gas.

There are small simple stone huts, serving as shelters, and we huddle around the oven, together with tibetan yak-men and a few chinese trekkers. Suddenly, the man next to me collapses, and falls face down on the stone floor. My sister is a competent doctor, and after a quick examination, that reveals a gaping hole in his head, she is outraged:

– What is the man doing here, at 4900 m, with a severe wound in his head?

– Why are his clothes wet?

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Blank faces, murmurs, shrugging shoulders, thats the way it is, he was wounded, is walking back to receive medical treatment, when he hopefully arrives back to civilization in a few days. The wound is infected, the man is losing conciousness, he owes only the wet clothes he is wearing, it is below zero outside, there is no helicopter that will come to rescue up a tibetan yak-man.

The first rule of treatment being keep the patient warm and dry, she commands around, and reluctantly the other yak-men make room for him to lie down, we find blankets and dry clothes, after a cleaning and provisory dressing of the wound, and administering antibiotics from our first aid kit. It is a relief to hear the patient as he starts to joke a few hours later, when the medicine kicks in.

As we break the last camp, we discover that our crew is planning to leave two big bags full of trash, a sad contribution to an already suffering fragile ecosystem.

– We need to take our trash with us.

– No, I paid environment protection tax! Somebody else will come and clean this.

When we bumble on the road back to civilization, it is without the trash bags in the car. An unpleasant taste in my mouth.

It is a moral dillema, how much should we complain, where is the line between impoving a situation, and a man losing his job. We meet with the manager in a fast food restaurant, get a long explanation about ecology, and missing elements from guide’s education, and issues with local goverment, eco tourism being a very complicated affair. We interrupt:

– No, it is very simple. Don’t leave trash.

– Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints.

The long train ride back, down from the Tibetan Plateau to Wuhan gives time to think.

We met many people in Tibet, but didn’t really make friends, there was no connection, a sad feeling.

But a few days later, I get an email from Sonam, general manager of Explore Tibet, the company that organized our trek.

– Your guide worked really hard, he realized his mistake.

Explore Tibet staff working on their community project – cleaning up a mountain, and raising awareness.

As I browse the photos, and read his story, I can feel a smile growing on my face. Explore Tibet has decided to take responsibility, and go forward in protecting the fragile eco system, and has demonstrated the commitment by organizing a clean up day, sending staff to remove bag after bag of garbage from one of the holy mountains, and sponsored signposts stating a familiar phase in 3 languages:

– Take nothing but memories – leave nothing but footprints.

This phrase, this recognition, is the missing connection. Now, I feel, that we channelled a change, we left a mark.