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Lion Fish
[Editor's Note: Due to illness, our usual writer, Beth, is taking some time off. We welcome guest blogger Dan as he fills us in on the latest Alaskan Kangaroo wanderings.]

A
wesome!


With Beth still unable to take a boat ride, we reasoned that it was a good time for me to do some diving research and get some much-needed practice before our course to be SCUBA divemasters next month on Koh Tao island, Thailand.


I signed up for some group dives and the following morning I was on a boat headed for Hon Mun, a large island 40 minutes from the harbour. The cobalt water was very inviting. The day was hot and diving in was just the solution.


Underwater was really beautiful. When I was learning to dive, I was focusing on where my instructor was, so I wouldn't get lost. This dive I finally looked around a little. The first dive spot was Rainbow Reef and as the name suggests it was a huge bio-diverse coral garden full of hard and soft coal and a myriad of fish. I saw six lion fish, a stone fish and more other fish than I could name.


The second dive was at Madonna Rock. Named so for a possibly obvious reason, Madonna rock was lighter on the coral and abundance of fish, but had the redeeming feature of a large number of swim-throughs and caves. These were super exciting. There is a balance between buoyancy and position and controlling your movement. The 50 minute dive had five swim-throughs and two caves..


There were many fish hiding under the swim-throughs that it seemed the fish agreed with me. Swim- throughs are just fun!


* * *

Please be patient, Dan's photos from Nha Trang are coming soon!
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Madonna Rock--named for the singer, not the saint
 
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Sunday morning shopping on the Mekong River
[Editor's Note: Due to illness, our usual writer, Beth, is taking some time off. We welcome guest blogger Dan as he fills us in on the latest Alaskan Kangaroo wanderings.]

A
bout five hours southwest of Ho Chi Minh City, is the quaint riverside city of Can Tho.

After a such a long bus ride, there is nothing better than exploring a new town. A man at our hotel quoted us $40 U.S for an eight-hour boat up the Mekong to see the floating markets. There were two markets to see.

While we thought about it, Beth and I made our way to the river's esplanade and took a long stroll along the long walk. I thought that maybe like many countries, dealing with the boat owners direct was a sure-fire way to get a cheaper price. Also, I think we read somewhere that it should be around $3 an hour, however it prices do go up.


So we walked. Took a few pictures of the ferry that carried motorbikes and cyclists across the river. Reminisced at how Can Tho felt similar to Shantou in northern Guangdong, China. Instinctively, I turned around and saw a man in a gray “ Boss” brand t-shirt. I didn't think anything of it.


We walked some more, and came up to what looked to be the boats that would carry passengers to the floating markets. We stopped, took some pictures and showed interest in the boats and the area. No one approached us. No one tried to sell us a tour. We walked on.


“ I was sure that that would be the place to find a ride,” I said to Beth a little perplexed.

“ We'll keep looking.” I noticed she was puzzled too.


We walked along the foreshore for another five hundred metres. We passed some more boats, but no one was offering a ride. At one point, two old men laughed. I looked behind me, and there was a man wearing a “ Boss” brand t-shirt. Had I seen it before?


The sun was setting. It hung heavy in the sky and cast the golden light of photography's magic hour. We took some pictures, and made our way back the way we came. The man in the “ Boss” t-shirt was near us again.


“ Hey Beth, I think that man has been following us.”

“ Really?”

“ Let's give it a test.”


We walked about ten metres, and suddenly stopped and turned around sharply. The man was coming in the same direction as us. We stopped to take pictures, he waited nearby. We zigzagged through the park, he followed in and out of the esplanade. He was terrible at following.


We finally gave him the slip by hiding behind a short wall. He walked passed us a took a seat by on a park bench and made a call. We took a picture of him just in case there were any problems.


We finally walked past, thinking he hadn't seen us. Finally an old lady in her seventies came out to the street, near where we had stopped to look at boats earlier.


“ Psst! Do you want a boat ride tomorrow?”


Broad smiles on our faces. Finally!


She lead us to the dock where three or four women sat. We were still at the introduction stage when the women stopped and turned away from us. It was like a switch had been turned off. I turned around and coming down the path was the man in the “ Boss” t-shirt.


I stood up and walked over to him directly.


“ Hey Amigo!” I asked, “ Why are you following us?”


“ No, no.” he answered, avoiding eye contact.


“ Yes you are. Why are you following us?”


“ No, I, no...” he turned and hurried away.


The ladies sighed their relief and smiled again.


“He is bad man.” One of they ladies said. We couldn't understand why they thought this.


Had we stumbled on to a turf war? Was it the local Triads? Did the hotel send someone to follow us and try to ensure we went with their boat guy and no one else? Was it the local tourist police hoping to keep us safe?

We would never know.

I chatted with the ladies and agreed on $3 per hour and a time to meet one of them in the morning. Beth would wait this one out, her tail-bone was starting to bother her and a morning on the hard wooden seats of a river boat didn't seem like it would help any.


The actual ride was great. The sunrise on the Mekong was just gorgeous. We passed a floating gas station. The houses seemed to be on stilts rather than floating. I can't compare this to the floating markets in Thailand, however to me this floating market was larger house boats disseminating their cargo to smaller boats to be transported along the river. The larger boats had a long pole with a fruit or vegetable as the 'flag' to show all what cargo it carried.


We were at the market for a good forty minutes and continued our way back through small canals. A real slice of rural life. Fishing and boats hauling dirt. There were palm fronds that grew up straight out of the water. It was fun.


On the hard wooden plank that I sat on, three and a half hours was more than enough. I was glad I didn't sign up for longer. Time to check in on Beth.



***
Click here to see Dan's photos from Can Tho!


 
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A street vendor in the 'foreigner' district
[Editor's Note: Due to illness, our usual writer, Beth, is taking some time off. We welcome guest blogger Dan as he fills us in on the latest Alaskan Kangaroo wanderings.]

T
he airport bus snakes through the traffic. The city is a balmy 33 C – 91 F and it is humid, but after Kolkata, this is a nice break.


Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, a bustling metropolis of made of Lego concrete. Its roads are full of scooters and mopeds. Honda is the big winner here in the transformation from bicycle to motorcycle. The mind-boggling, eye-crossing thousands of scooters are zoom-zooming and the only road rule is to not hit what is in front of you. Flashing past, zig-zagging through the traffic, most bikes end up driving on the sidewalk. Chaos as order only works when everyone is as skillful as these riders.


Pham Ngu Lao is the centre for backpackers. At night, bright neon signs beacon the US dollars from the the leather wallets. A grandma walks by carrying twenty pirated best-seller books which have been cleverly tied together. She would be happy to sell to have one less to carry. Beer at two for one. Happy hour is every hour! Most are here to relax and have a good time. Most are succeeding.

“You want a cyclo?” ask the man in the beige baseball cap. One chap hands us a flyer for the Taj Mahal Restaurant. No way, but thanks any way! We were just there there, at the real Taj Mahal!


Pizzas, hamburgers and steak are the popular dishes. But I just wanted some fresh spring rolls and some pho. Local food is easy to find with local restaurants and street food almost everywhere. It's cheap and tasty and healthy and a Saigon beer straight from the Alaska (brand) refrigerator to help the food down. Ice cold beer full of flavor washing away the heat! Awesome!



* * *


One day we wandered through the town to the War Remnants Museum for a peek at not-so-distant history.


Near the museum we saw a T-shirt with the slogan, “Vietnam is a country not a war.”


At the War Remnants Museum (formerly the Museum of American War Crimes) in downtown Saigon, it's easy to forget that.


It was a humbling place full of war pictures, statistics and weaponry. A memorial, I believe, is to act as a warning beacon to any and all who shall pass it by. The message should always be simple and clear-- “War is bad. Everyone suffers and many people die.” There is good and bad, but mostly it is just stories of pain from those who are touched by war.


Unfortunately, this got a little lost at this museum. A war memorial should not have for sale pirated copies of Dan Brown books and Lonely Planet:Thai Beaches guides, glossy picture postcards of the war, and placards of the cartoon character Tin Tin next to fake fallen soldier GI dog tags. Ironically, all the prices at the gift shop were listed not in the local currency, the dong, but in U.S Dollars.


We decided to skip the city's other war remnants, even the famous Chi Chi tunnels. We'd rather look at Vietnam today, and with that in mind we headed south, to the Mekong Delta's Can Tho.


* * *

Click here to see our photos of Ho Chi Minh City!

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At the War Remnants Museum
 
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Taxi Dweller: This Calcutta cabbie sleeps on his car at night. Many families live on the sidewalks here, one of India's largest cities.
[Editor's Note: Due to illness, our usual writer, Beth, is taking some time off. We welcome guest blogger Dan as he fills us in on the latest Alaskan Kangaroo wanderings.]

I
n our travels through India, I have come to understand understand some of the etymology of some of the sayings in our language. For instance “ Only, mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.”

This is true.

 When we arrived in Calcutta (Kolkata nowadays) the midday temperature was 45C or 113 F with 85-plus percent humidity. Most of the locals stayed indoors.


In India, animals are sacred. Most people are vegetarian and in many cities cows and dogs roam free.

So “Let sleeping dogs lie.” was some really sound advice. At night if you roused them, they would bark and bark. If you perchance happened to step on one no doubt a nasty bite would come your way. Best to let them lie undisturbed.


So when I found out that we were going to Calcutta, I was excited. “It's like the black hole of Calcutta!” Great, I would understand another saying. Unfortunately we never made it to the Black Hole on account of the heat. We substituted it for the Central Markets, which was more or less a hole full of unpleasantness.


The rest of Kolkata was very pleasant. We went to a Bengali restaurant and tried hands down the best fish in India (although it was the only fish we had had in India.)


** Please be patient, our photos from Calcutta are coming soon!**


 
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Tyger, tyger...
[Editor's Note: Due to illness, our usual writer, Beth, is taking some time off. We welcome guest blogger Dan as he fills us in on the latest Alaskan Kangaroo wanderings.]


Often in life as in travel, the conundrum of whether the journey or the destination rates as being more important comes into question.


We had the opportunity to reflect on this when we went on a wild tiger safari at Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh.


We arrived, (we being Beth and I as well as two new acquaintances, Mike and Silke,) at around eleven thirty at night. We had a prior arrangement with the Kum Kum Home hotel manager for a late pickup at Umaria, got into a smallish mini van, and proceeded to our lodgings along a tired, crater-filled road to Bandhavgarh. The 45-minute journey was highly entertaining because it included, albeit inadvertently, a night safari. Along the way we saw the reflective eyes and dark silhouettes of a number of native creatures like deer and even a jackal.


We awoke the next morning to have breakfast on our veranda. Somehow the layout of Kum Kum Guest house took us to Africa—it seemed to be reminiscent of the set of “ The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”


The heat was of a warm comforting quality and surrounded us like a tandoori oven. The large, broad trees were absolutely beautiful. They were of the Flame of the Forest variety. The branches were bursting with orangey red flowers that looked like tigers' claws. In the gentle breeze, the trees swayed lazily and the dark shadows that were cast on the hard compacted earth, danced back and forth. The local languar monkey troupe played on the tree limbs in a whimsical fashion.


The manager came over and announced that we could go on safaris through two gates to view the tigers, appropriately labeled Gate One and Gate Two. We booked three journeys through Gate Two, because the popularity of Gate One meant that it was booked out for the days we would be there. Gate Two also cost 500Rps more.


Here's how it went:


Day One, Gate Two, Afternoon.


We were super excited! Today was the day. We would see the tigers. We drove for twenty minutes to get to the gate. We saw some deer. The sun hung heavy in the sky. And then, our jeep broke down.


The engine cut while we rounded a corner. The driver got out and checked under the hood. Steam erupted like Mount Vesuvius. The driver poured water in the radiator. We made some jokes about it, looked on the bright side of it, and all felt relief when we continued on our way. The delay was only fifteen minutes.


After another ten minutes of driving, the jeep overheated again. We were beginning to feel a little concerned--the guide and driver had no means of defense if a tiger were to attack.


After 20 minutes we were on our way again. All of us wondering if we would see tigers that day.


Nope.


Day Two, Gate Two, Morning.

A better jeep, but . . . no tiger sightings meant none of the desperately hoped-for elephant rides were available.


And, no tigers.


Day Two, Gate Two, Afternoon.


No tigers.


Was it disappointing? For me, frankly it was. The perspiration was there. The effort was there. The will and commitment was there. What we needed was just a little luck.


Unfortunately, for our travel companions, their time was up. They had a 4:22 a.m. train to catch back to Varanasi.


Luckily for us, we had a more flexible schedule and Beth and I worked in one final trip.


On our third and final day we set off in the afternoon with a Belgian family, Christian, Genevieve and Mathieu.

Day Three. Gate One, Afternoon.

Finally, we were scheduled to enter the always busy Gate One. I had a good feeling about this: We were in a new Jeep, and making good speed. We saw a couple of rare birds.


The driver asked, “ What do you want to see today.” to which I replied, “ No spotted deer, no Sambhar deer, no barking deer, no peacocks, no monkeys, no langaurs, no kingfishers, no beetle eaters, no vultures and no jungle chickens! Just tigers please!” We had seen these other animals at Gate Two.


“They are wild pea fowl.” corrected Christian, about the peacocks, and then continued, “ Can we also see leopards and sloth bears?”


“Leopards and bears are very rare.” answered the guide.


I began to notice the position of the sun. I asked Beth with some concern, “Are we going towards Gate Two?”


“It seems like it.” she replied.


A few hundred metres more, and we received confirmation. We were driving towards a derelict trailer with one wheel missing. We had passed this trailer each of the time we entered Gate Two. We were going on the Gate Two trail again.


“Not Gate Two again!” I said.


I took Beth's hand and held it tight. I must have looked crestfallen.


Geneviere whispered, “Ce n'est pa vrai!”


The guide noticing the change in mood, responded immediately.


“No, no, not Gate Two, only Path C for five minutes.


After fifteen minutes, true to his word, we were with six other jeeps in a clearing by a water hole.

Three tigers strutted through the tall yellow grass with poise and pride. They bathed and groomed themselves and we watched on in awe.

I had seen tigers before but I hadn't seen them free. An unspoken agreement must have been made. 'You people can watch us, and we won't eat you and by the way, thanks for not hunting us.' We watched for over an hour and then left, bubbling with excitement.


The sun had set and in the mango orange afterglow we had almost reached the exit when the jeep in front of us stopped abruptly. We also stopped and saw that on a ridge just 30 metres above us was a leopard. It stretched, yawned and was gone.


The journey contained such a variety of animals. The destination only required tigers.

Was it too greedy to get the best of both?


***

Click here to see our photos from Bandhavgarh!
 
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The moon over Varanasi
At five thirty a.m., the gunmetal sky above the Ganges river promised us another hot day.

Before the scorch, though, we were off to watch Varanasi wake up.

From burning dead bodies, to bathing babies and washing hotel sheets, life's rituals are performed on the holy river.

Our first sight before sunrise was the cremation ghat. Tall piles of wood are stacked in the alleys surrounding it. Families pay for the wood and taxes, our boatman, 20-year-old Sanjay, told us. Three glowing fires flickered at the beach. Men stood around without apparent grief. Are they the families or paid pallbearers, I wondered.

A few children played in the ashy mud at the river's side as the shadows in the fire played hide and seek with my imagination. Are those feet I see? A skull?

Sanjay knows the morbid interests of tourists: "There are five kinds people not burning. Five, bodies in river."

Children, pregnant women and holy men are already pure and so they don't need the flame to cleanse them, he explained. Plus, people who have died from a cobra bite or leprosy are considered already touched by god. Later we pass a bloated mass of something. Bones protrude. Animal or human?

As disturbing as it is, now I have a plot for my next novel, I think. A murder mystery.

Past the cremation site, we went to a more joyous part of the river. Men and women stood hip-deep in the water, washing their faces and arms. A few men chanted: "Om. Om. Om." Little boys played in the water, clinging to an inner tube. Older boys had plastic jugs stuck in their underpants as flotation.

One section seemed to be for laundry. Stones were piled up to make a line of washboards. Men beat hotel linens in the water rhythmically. After a good beating, the twisted fabric was thrown to a pile on the bank, and later spread on a retaining wall to sun-dry. "Not your guest house!" Sanjay told us reassuringly.

Sanjay pointed out some landmarks among the chaos of buildings and stairways that make up the riverside 'ghats.' The Ganpati guest house also houses a home for widows. A Bollywood star owns a big flashy red building. A royal family donated such-and-such palace to sadhus (holy men). And, one elaborate building belongs to the guy who collects the 200 rupee tax from the cremations at the burning ghat.

"He is very rich, but his caste is very bad," Sanjay commented.

We turned back, facing the golden sun that rose through the smog like a burning penny. Even at 7:30 the heat was getting intense. Sanjay pulled the boat up to a group of stones to let us get out for breakfast.

Varanasi had awoken.


**Click here to see photos from Varanasi**