Bike touring in Asia 2019

Background

I met my bike tour companion, a Thai woman in her mid 50s named Noy, through my father in the little town in northeastern Thailand where she was born and raised, and he likes to spend his winters.  On our first meeting, she invited me to join her on a bike tour trip she had been planning. She has 10 years of bike touring experience, including solo tours of Japan, Norway and many more trips of duo touring with her former bike touring partner, a man from the US she had met by chance on a trip to China. Though I have a long-standing all-season relationship with my bike, I had never done a bike tour before, and had already been thinking of exploring Laos and Vietnam while over here in Asia.  The bike trip seemed to connect these dots, and I was thrilled with the idea. 

Additionally, 19 months prior I had an arthroscopic hip surgery to repair a torn labrum and clean up the resulting arthritis in the joint.  There had been some residual pain that lingered after the procedure, which was delaying my recovery.  I was still in pain, which greatly affected my motivation and limited my range of motion, so consequently I still had not recovered my full strength back.  Additionally, through both my work schedule and the sedentary surgery period, I was heavier than I had ever been in my life.  I saw this upcoming bike trip as an opportunity to overcome both these challenges at once; I knew it would be hard, but I was tired of being in limbo, and I was ready to give it my all.  

From Noy’s perspective, she was happy to have a partner to tour with, and help cut costs.  She offered to help me get ready, including lending me some key pieces of gear, such as panniers, gloves, a sun sleeves, and food containers. Her brother in law runs a bike rental business, so at a discounted rate I also rented a bicycle for the month. Because I was joining her trip, we were going to follow her plan, and we briefly discussed our expectations, in terms of what we wanted to see and achieve, on that first day.  At the time it seemed like we were in agreement, but as the trip progressed, it became clear that our expectations and needs were quite divergent, and those differences ultimately proved too great to overcome, but now I am getting ahead of myself.  

This blog entry is comprised of updates I sent home which I have fleshed out to provide more information or background where it felt enriching to do so.  In keeping the original communications, I was hoping to preserve some of the energy and spirit I was experiencing on the trip.  I do hope you enjoy it, and welcome any feedback you may have to offer.  

Route

Original route (minus the detour between Muang Ngeun and Luang Prabang)

The plan was to bus just across the Laos border and start biking east from there until reaching the coastal Vietnamese city of Vinh before heading south, the final destination being Ho Chih Minh city (also known as Saigon).  From there we would fly back to Thailand, but not before visiting the Mekhong Delta and the city of Can Tho, which for Noy was the highlight of the journey.  For the first stretch through Laos, Noy wanted to take a new road, still being constructed, as it would shave off over 100kms. from the journey.  After reaching the coast, the plan was to bike on the inland highway in order to avoid the more plentiful traffic along the coastal route. This later changed to taking the flatter coastal highway for the sake of expediency, as the mountainous terrain of Laos was slow going, and ate up more of our time than anticipated.  For the whole adventure we had exactly one month, as Noy had taken the time off work, and was expected back in Thailand. 

*Note: Because the road is still under construction, Google Maps will not allow me to connect the dots between Muang Nguen and Luang Prabang on the route we actually rode. When you look at the map, imagine a direct line between these two points, and take out the large detour to the south or north.

Day 1 – Thailand to Laos

After a 2.5 hour bus ride, we arrived at the “friendship bridge”, a strange little stretch of road between officially exiting Thailand and entering Laos, there was a surreal moment when the bus simply swung over to drive on the other side of the road, as in Thailand they drive on the right, and in Laos on the left, as a throwback to colonial French occupation.  Conveniently, this one had a perfect little curve in it to block the view, just built for subterfuge! (Hehe) Here we offloaded the bikes from the passenger bus we took from Nan.  

However, something was not right, the song tow wasn’t there!   Noy was stressing, as the bus driver did not want to wait. She tried to call her friend, but with no luck.  Not wanting to leave the bikes unattended, at first she thought she would stay there, and I ride the bus to the Laos border, but at the last minute, she hopped on the bus too.  To our great relief, the song tow was waiting at the Laos border!  She told the driver where the bikes were and he went to pick them up while we headed through immigration, then back on the bus to the little border town of Muang Ngeun where we reconvened with our bikes.  Of course we had to pay for our bus ride, pay the song tow driver, and then pay the bus extra for the bike as well, but in the end all went smoothly and it was worth it. We assembled our bikes, and after delivering a thank you gift of oranges to her friend who worked up the road, and a lovely lunch at the roadside restaurant where she works, we were on our way.  

The road into the town of Hongsa was one of the worst you can imagine on a bike; full of potholes and unpaved sections.  To get here we had to climb 18kms of straight-up steep hills that wound through the mountainous region of northern Laos before descending for about 15k.  It was quite the introduction to bike touring!  I am, of course sore, but my hip feels mostly ok, the little training injury of a strained hamstring that I gave myself riding up to a hilltop temple in Thailand in the spirit of getting ready for the trip hasn’t bothered me too much, and also minimal schaffing, so, so far so good

My first impression of Laos is that it is noticeably less affluent than Thailand in general.  The language is close enough to Thai that my little guide can speak easily with everyone, and she’s been very conscientious about making sure both of our needs are met.

We stopped in town and had a fresh coconut while we wrestled with putting a SIM card in my phone, which ultimately didn’t work. I think my phone is unlocked, but apparently there is often compatibility problems in Laos, so wifi it is for me for the week I am passing through. While we were there I touched my face and it was covered with crusted salt from my sweat that had dried there!

And now here we are, sitting in a very clean room at a posh hilltop resort in the town of Hongsa, which is known for its power generating station (Hongsa Powah!).  Ironically, as we pulled up to the driveway of the elaborate Hongsa Resort just as the sky turned to orange fire, there was one last, ridiculously steep hill. Haha! I guess that was our theme for the day.  But it didn’t end there

Ironically, as we pulled up to the driveway of the elaborate Hongsa Resort just as the sky turned to orange fire, there was one last, ridiculously steep hill.  Haha!  But it didn’t end there my friends, no no; our bungalow for which we paid 108,000 Laos kip each! (but includes breakfast), was even further up, right up at the tippy top!  I guess that was our theme for the day.  We pushed our bikes for the last stretch, as we were both pretty done, but I’m sure the view will be spectacular in the morning.my friends, no no; our bungalow (for which we paid 108,000 Laos kip each! but includes breakfast), was even further up, right at the tippy top!  We pushed our bikes for the last stretch, but I’m sure the view will be spectacular in the morning.

And now here we are, sitting in a very clean room at a posh hilltop resort in the town of Hongsa, which is known for its power generating station (Hongsa Powah!).  We have another probably two days of riding to get to Luang Prabang (this turned out to be three), which I’ve heard is quite pretty and interesting, and on the Mekhong River.  It is also the only big town on our route through Laos, so we will apply for visas there to enter Vietnam.

But because this terrain is so hilly and slow going, tomorrow night we will likely end up staying in a local Laos peoples home, something that is not uncommon in Asia apparently. This may mean no wifi until the day after, but know that I am safe, and that the journey has begun!

Day 2 

The terrain is so steep, and going is slow.  At one point I was zigzagging across the slope to cut the grade and was going so slowly I literally just tipped over to the downhill side!  As I recovered my bike all I could do was laugh that my maximum output wasn’t enough to keep my forward momentum.  There was nothing left to do, but laugh.  Hill 1, Alisoun 0.   

It took us all of day two (9am-4:00pm) to go 29 kms., so when we finally reached a little town built on the sloping sides of a small river valley, we decided to stay the night.  The next town was 27kms and many more hills away.

As we pulled up to park our bikes for the night, so many children gathered around! They were shy, so we warmed them up by taking photos. Then we all went to the river together to bathe and wash off the grime and sweat from the day. We had a grand time splashing, clowning around, and giggling in the shallow water, and took many photos as we bathed and Noy and I did our daily ritual of washing our clothes.

Clean and refreshed, we headed back to where the women of our host family (mother and daughter in law) worked in their simple kitchen, while children, dogs, chickens and cats wandered in and out.  I haven’t seen a female dog yet who wasn’t suckling young, and the one here was so skinny, I snuck her rice and pork under the table. The pork was local and wild-crafted and sooo delicious. They were also making a large vat of rice whiskey in the kitchen, of which they gave me a taster.  It was very strong!

The bed they offered us was a wide platform covered by mosquito netting, and nestled in the corner of a larger room, with a table, and television.  While the mother, daughter-in-law and young son settled into watching a tv program after dark, three ten-year old girls and I practiced some English.  

Though the bed was reasonably comfortable, the blankets were very dirty, and I was woken several times during the night by the barking dog and ubiquitous roosters.  I could hear the family breathing and making “night music”, and it wasn’t until then that I realized that the family had given us their bed and slept on the floor in the same room. 

Day 3 

The next day just to get out of the village we climbed and climbed straight up.  It was so steep we could only go at a walking pace, and were accompanied by two Laos boys who easily kept up to us and just stared and stared.  I found it quite irritating, to be working at my maximum only to travel a measly 4.41 kms per 50 mins. and having them amble alongside, effortlessly viewing our toil.  After the better part of an our and there seemed to be no end to the staring, nor change in the level of familiarity or friendliness, I finally shooed them off!  The views were amazing as we climbed; I couldn’t believe that it just kept going up. And up. And up. And up…

We had lunch at a hilltop home where a whole family of three generations lived. There were little potbelly pigs running around and the ubiquitous mama dog, male dog, tiny scraggly kitten, which they put under a rooster basket while we ate.  Again the children just stared and stared, I can only imagine what must have been going through their minds.  I wanted to capture them, but the instant I pointed a camera at them, they would look away, so I “selfied” them to trick them into being in a photo while I looked away.

This day we encountered a lot of construction, and after two days of straight climbing, finally started to descend into the lowlands again, signaling a successful crossing of the first mountain pass.  This also marked the end of our time on the new highway.  Moving into the lower altitudes, there was sense of how much easier life was here.  With water sources more plentiful, and the road access established for longer, lives were abundant compared to the rugged scarcity of the mountain people.  While savouring the downhills, we noticed the increased moisture in the air made it sweet, and as we passed through the plentiful villages, the people seemed more relaxed and happy, their lives perhaps lived less close to their means.

Noy wanted to shoot for Luang Prabang that night, but I was exhausted and my knee had been hurting since 1:00. So I finally asked that we stop for the night at 5:20pm.  We ended up staying with a lovely Laos woman and her young son in their newly built home.  She was beautifully generous, literally giving me the shoes off her feet and a sarong so we could wash at the split in the pipe of the waterline, which was directed into a bucket with a plastic bag.  

She and her husband had just built their home three months ago, so no electricity or running water yet.  It was a simple , one room home with a partitioned closet sized area for the bedroom and a day bed in the main room surrounded by a mosquito net. During the day, light leaked through the many cracks in the walls and chickens wandered in and out on the dirt floor. 

As the day wound down, we watched our hostess prepare food and process rice by candlelight.  In spite of her obvious poverty, she encouraged us to eat our fill of the delicious, simple dinner she prepared of steamed dark greens, savoury omelette and rice. While the smoke from the open fire in the centre of the room made a lusty coziness in the drafty building, I reflected on how intimate this cultural immersion felt.  I was in a state of wonder as I nodded off to the immersive sound of crickets and frogs by the dying light of the fire.  

Her husband was away working, but came home after we had gone to bed and parked his motorbike in the living room where we were sleeping!  In the morning we were woken early by the baby, so we got up and moving right away.  As there was no bathroom, we cat-holed our morning constitutions, burying them with an adze in the bush behind the house.  She prepared us a lovely warm meal for breakfast, and a simple lunch with plenty of sticky rice to supplement.  We gave her some money for the meals and shelter, and then were on our way.  

Our day started with a hill of course, haha, but the road was nothing like the steep mountains of the last three days; now it meandered with gentle ups and downs.  We wound our way along the valley floor through the many villages, and past a popular local tourist destination, before the road finally joined up with the beautiful Mekhong River.  The population density started to noticeably increase as we got closer to Luang Prabang, before we finally arrived at the ferry terminal with the city on the other side.  It had taken us 3.5 days from the Thai/Laos border to get here, arriving on day 4 at 12:45pm.  On the way, we had stayed two nights in the homes of Laos people. Amazing!

It’s hard to explain the feeling as we arrived.  This stretch of the river is wide and moves with the slow power of an anaconda.  The humidity in the air lends an air of mystery and involves you on a visceral level that is hard to describe, blending the senses of sight and smell with the tactile so it all feels to be happening inside you as well as out, and at the same time triggers some kind of memory that you’ve been here before, or perhaps you’ve always been here, and just waiting to be reunited with yourself.

Whatever the cause, it is arresting.  The city of Luang Prabang curves along the river bank, and the architecture of buildings and streets harken back to a time when the organic relationship with an environment and it’s resources determined the layout of a town.    The ferry is a phenomenon of it’s own; a wide, flat decked 8 car ferry which travels across the current at a rakish angle, and comes into the dock impossibly sideways, only to straighten out nonchalantly at the end with the ease of hourly practice. 

Day 4 – Luang Prabang, Laos
First Impressions

Luang Prabang is swarmed with tourists and the prices are high, but my intrepid guide is doing her best to haggle and find good prices, since she knows the economy better than I.  My knee has been quite painful for the past two days where I had an old MCL strain from driving a snowmobile on my birthday working a ski patrol shift up at Cypress Mountain, BC.  At this point, I’m thinking I may have to skip the rest of Laos by bike because Noy says it is similar to what we have just done.  The last 120 kms. took us 2.5 days because the terrain was so steep!  Judging by my current state, I don’t think my body can handle it. We have yet to come up with an alternate plan.  

I just paid 6$ for breakfast in one of the poorest countries in the world. I hate tourist culture! I can only hope it trickles down. I had an excellent sports massage last night and my tiny powerhouse of a therapist (who physically stood on my hamstrings: it felt soooo good!) told me she makes only $2.34/hour of massage. This city is beautiful and represents some remarkable history, but has become a huge tourist trap.

Day 5 – Luang Prabang, Laos
A Well-Earned Rest

Well, we’ve had a successful pit stop here in the bustling tourist centre of LP. I managed to change over my bike pannier bracket, as the other one didn’t fit and the bags kept sliding forward into my heels, which was frustrating. I also found a suitable strap to jury rig the kickstand, which was loose and kept hitting the pedal. I had one excellent massage and will take another tonight.  We got my visa for entry into Vietnam sorted, I ate some comfort food and had some excellent coffees. We changed more money and bought some bits and pieces we were needing and a couple of light sundries from the market. I even had a surprise sighting of Ted Danson! (bottom left below). Now we are easy to go again tomorrow morning!

I was going to beg off this next section and take the bus, but it would have left me with 7 days to kill and it wasn’t feeling right. A driver at the immigration office gave us some more information about the road ahead, and apparently it’s not as steep as the one we just crossed (since that one was literally the steepest in the country!), so I guess I’m going to give it another whirl. Hopefully my knee behaves.

We figure it’ll take us another 7-9 days to cross Laos, which means we’ll have less time for Vietnam.  Noy has adjusted our course to take the coastal road once we reach Vietnam, which is flat and will be faster, and is also likely to have more for me to see as a first timer to the country, so I’m happy about that.  Even so, we will likely end up taking the bus for some of it, as we won’t have enough time left after this slow-going mountain climbing to cycle the whole way to Ho Chi Minh city. 

Onward to Phou Khoum, and then to Phonsavan. We figure it’ll take us another 7-9 days

Day 6 – Luang Prabang, Laos

Oyvey! The sharing of information has proven to be challenging for both of us I suppose.  Noy’s English is limited and she is gathering information and making a plan as we go. This morning I was woken earlier than expected and she told me maybe I should take the bus after all, since she has new information that the distance today is 70 kms., and may be beyond my ability (why did she wait until 5:00 in the morning to tell me that?).

I’m actually fine with it, as it’s becoming clear we have very different agendas on this trip!  Noy is on a fierce training program; she is training to bike the highest highway in the world, from Kathmandu India to Annapurna Nepal, this coming June, so the Laos section is important training for her.  Since this is my first bike trip, I just hope I survive it! Also, as I am far from home and here for the first time, I want to do a bit of sight seeing.

I took an extra day in Luang Prabang, and in spite of limited time for research, I managed to squeeze in all my greatest wishes.  I went to the Khang Si waterfalls, met the cutest puppy I ever did see, and did a private Mekhong boat cruise at sunset.  I also had my laundry done.  I know Noy would never approve of my languorous, costly ways, but this made me very happy.  

Day 7 – Phou Khoum, Laos

Well I made it safely to PhouKhoun, the rendez-vous point to meet up with Noy, but not without some classic Asian travel complications.

First, I missed the bus because my guesthouse told me 9:00 departure but it left at 8:30. I ended up taking the local transport, a small, open backed truck with bench seats that carries everything from noodles and pork skin to lumber, along with humans. I had packed my bike into a box for the big bus, but in the end maybe it wasn’t even necessary, so an extra expense for nothing.

The road was indeed steep and the hills long.  I was glad I didn’t bike it, even the truck was having trouble in some sections keeping up speed.  In fact it took us 5 hours to go 120kms, so I guess that gives some idea of the difficulty, though some of that was due to road conditions, and how windy and narrow it was.

Right at the start of the climb there was a big transport truck lying on its side against the embankment with one whole row of wheels up in the air. As we passed it, I could hear chickens panicking in the back, poor things!

Then, at about the halfway point, after 2+ hours of bumpy, windy roads first thing in the morning, I needed to use the bathroom so badly I finally leaned over to the drivers side window as we entered a little town and asked for the “hong naam” (literally ‘water room’). The driver stopped but said (in Laos, but his intentions were clear),  “You can go, but if you do, you stay here, I’m not waiting!”  Ooh, I was sooo uncomfortable because I had already waited as long as I could before asking him, hoping we would arrive at our destination, but I stayed in the truck and he barreled off again.  He must have taken pity on me however, because a few yards up the road he stopped and asked a local if I could use the washroom in their house. Thank god! Even without the pee factor it was a dusty, cold, uncomfortable and long trip.

Day 9 – Phonsavan, Laos

These last couple of days have been so full, it’s been hard to find time to write.  Because the terrain in Laos is so hilly, and taking longer than expected, we are crunched for time, so have been trying to put as many kms. in per day as possible.

Riding up out of the valley in the morning

Amazingly, we came across two other cyclists, also from Thailand, so we leap-frogged with them most of yesterday and today, pretty much on our own rhythms, but synchronistically sharing meal spots. It was nice to have a couple more bodies on the adventure, and gave our tight dynamic of two a little room to breathe in a positive way.  One of them had a fair amount of bike touring experience too, and was able to help me fine-tune the setting of my derailleur so it was finally shifting smoothly into my lower gears.  Better late than never, and it made such a difference!

Yesterday we cycled about 83 kms (-20 for me, more on that in a minute), and it was the most stunning day by far.  We travelled through mountainous terrain, but unlike the other stretch, the ups and downs were fairly moderate. Well-established towns situated along the roadside enjoyed an exquisite quality of life, perched right on the precipice of steep mountains falling away below, and overlooking the most jaw dropping vistas. Yesterday was the most stunning day by far. We travelled through mountainous terrain, but unlike the other stretch, the ups and downs were fairly moderate. Well established towns enjoyed an exquisite quality of life perched right on the precipice and looking over the most jaw dropping vistas.

The road wound around the mountainsides, before finally plummeting 30kms. in the most deliciously windy switchbacks with views for days.  I plugged in my headphones, listened to Xavier Rudd’s “Follow the Sun” on repeat and felt like I was flying.  It was a gloriously long descent along the spine of the mountain-range with breathtaking exposure and views, and it felt like the payback for all the previous days’ toil.  

I was euphoric, and my body felt great, until about 2/3 of the way up the long uphill on the other side when my knee started playing up again. I had to catch a local truck for the last 20kms, which Noy helped me flag down and communicate with. It felt just like being tucked 4 people into the cab of my father’s dirty country Toyota pickup cab while growing up, and just like back then, I got the gear stick!  They made room for me, one older woman climbing into the back to join another so that I could have a spot in the centre on the front seat. The charismatic and powerful younger woman who sat in the passenger seat beside me chatted to me engagingly in Lao, completely nonplussed that I didn’t understand a word she was saying, and even massaged my knee a little, the rest of the time resting her arm amicably on my leg.

They weren’t going all the way to our destination, so at their house they set up a chair for me in the front yard and after a lot of confusion I finally understood they wanted me to wait for Noy to catch up to us.  I watched as she doted over her deliciously sweet little babe in the golden glow of the afternoon sunlight.   

Once she did pass by, I joined Noy for the last 10-15 kms. before we saw our Thai men’s cycling team having a meal in a restaurant.  We joined them, and the finishing earlier than we went on to stay at a guest house down the road.  The kind woman who ran the guest house invited us to stay with them, but when I looked at the room they were offering us, I balked at its squalor, and the fact that there was no wifi, and pushed Noy to continue on to the guest house where the others stayed.  It was so good to land in a clean bed with a shower and have the chance to update my trip with the folks at home.  I really needed that this night!

The next day, a brisk 40 kms. got us into the relatively larger center of Ponsavanh. We had lunch, and did a bit of shopping and then Noy and I split up again because she was tired and wanted to push on another 22kms to sleep at Nong Phet, and I wanted to check out the world heritage site of the “Plain of Jars”, which is just 6kms out of town.

I am so glad I went, it was a fascinating site, with huge stone jars like a glacial moraine scattered across a field that also retained several holes from bombs dropped during the 2nd world war.  I read a lot about the war, and didn’t know that Laos sustained possibly even worse bombing than Vietnam during the horrendous Vietnam war, as the pilots would lighten their loads on the homeward journey to save petrol, by dumping whatever bombs had not been deployed on Laos on the way home. 

The jars are fascinating too, and a bit of a mystery.  They are found in other parts of the world too, and though they don’t know who made them, they think they were used for burials.  One of the theories is that they would put the body in the jar and then cover it with a lid. Once the flesh had gone, they would bury the bones beside the jar. The smaller jars may have come later when they began to cremate the bodies first, allowing for smaller spaces.

Like Stonehenge, their history, size and presence is impressive; but the bombing history is also very interesting here.  With a cave at the site too, I felt like I got three experiences in one.

Day 10 – Big Springs hot springs, Laos

Haha crazy morning! I got up early to try and catch up with Noy but when I checked her message said she had gone on last night another 30kms so no chance to catch her now. I took myself to the bus station to catch the bus to her destination today and figured out which bus (the ticket counter wasn’t open yet), got my bike loaded on top and headed to the market for some food and to use the washroom. When I got back, the ticket counter was open so I went up to buy a ticket and the guy told me in perfect English that I would pay the driver.

So… I thought to ask him which town was at the top of today’s climb, so I could at least get a bit of cycling in, and long story short I ended up using his wifi and discovered a new message from Noy that her plans had changed because she had found a hot springs! Whoopee!!

The 76 km ride was actually really easy, because most of it was downhill.  On the road I met a really inspiring human named Christopher Boyce who had cycled from Argentina to Canada and then flew over to Hong Kong and was cycling west to Luang Prabang, then south to Thailand, then flying to India before completing his tour in Bhutan.  He’s a writer, and working on a sponsored project about the source and nature of happiness. We got deep into the philosophy really quickly and had a good roadside chat in the middle of a steep dirt road in backcountry Laos.   Check out his blog for his remarkable journey here: https://adventuresinhappinessblog.wordpress.com 

The hot springs were lovely, but quite different from the ones in Canada, no surprise there I suppose.  The place was nicely presented with gardens and strangely, a kind of pseudo zoo with ostriches, porcupines, deer, and a monkey, as well as squirrels, birds and some other oddities. They had three large concrete pools, but they were empty, and you had to pay a pretty penny for them to turn on the tap and let the hot spring water into one of them, so that was a tad disappointing.  On the other hand, there were bathtubs in the guesthouse rooms and the taps piped in hot spring water, so I had my first bath since arriving to Asia with natural hot springs water to boot, which was super nice.

After I had settled in and had a nice long soak, I went for a little wander around the grounds.  I found my way to the hot springs source, a hot pool surrounded by cactus, and a fast moving brook of hot water!  Fortunately I was wearing my swimsuit, so I dipped my legs into the pool, and then found a nice little indentation in the stream where the water could cascade over my shoulders.  I was in the forest, and completely alone, and if felt good to have a more natural experience of the hot springs, more like you would find in Canada. 

Day 11 – Nong Het, Laos
Last Day in Laos

Ouf, lots of challenges the last couple of days. Noy was angry with me for wanting to go see the world heritage site of the jars because she only wants to cycle, it is a short time to go a long way, so I understand, but I also cannot imagine coming home and saying I saw nothing of Laos and Vietnam because I only cycled. We talked about it today and she basically said I either follow her itinerary to the letter, or we split up and do separate trips.

The only thing is, it’s not like she has a plan.  She has been doing research as she goes and gathering information from conversations with locals, which she often forgets to report to me, or tells me last minute or at some ungodly hour in the morning, so I’m finding it difficult to balance my needs with her style. Things are a bit tenuous at the moment and I don’t know how they’ll go.

I have no information on Vietnam, and the thought of doing it by myself is a bit daunting, but in the end it may be the best thing. We may even end up leap-frogging and can stay in touch by internet through social media and use Google Maps to keep track of our locations. 

The theme of the first week was seeing her back as she cycled off into the distance, but now that I have found my stride, my longer frame means that I cycle much faster than her, about 15kms/hr to her 10. Today I did an experiment to see how much earlier I would arrive on Nong Het to see how much leeway I have to check our nearby roadside attractions. For example there was a waterfall on the way, only 5 kms off the road, which I actually had intended to see, but then blew by the turn off by accident. I arrived in Nong Het an hour before her, so possibly would have had time to do that.

I arrived early enough in Nong Het to cross the border today, but since I waited for Noy, I missed the opening hours.  For some reason it hadn’t even crossed my mind that they would close, haha.  Nong Het, Laos is about an hour’s cycle from the border-crossing to Vietnam. While I waited for her to arrive, I camped out at the Laos development bank using their wifi to do a bit of research, figuring out where to change money, the currency comparison, and relative prices of things so I know how much money to change, etc.  

Nong Het, Laos

Today’s cycle was quite hilly and my knee is very sore now. I finally realized that the pain is due to scar tissue I have in my MCL from a snowmobile injury while ski patrolling. I guess the tissue lacks elasticity, so is not responding with resilience to the strain of the up-hills.  I wonder if I continue to ask it to adapt to this new load, it will eventually revise itself … I sure hope so!  In the meantime I have been trying to ride really consciously, not pushing too hard on the up-hills, and working with low resistance/high speed instead, just to extend the number of kms. I can cycle in a day.

However, aside from that, I am feeling strong, and starting to understand the rhythm of cycle touring.  This evening with my extra time, and this turning point looming ahead of us, I have been ruminating on how one of the unexpected gifts of travelling is to relinquish expectations, as things hardly ever pan out as you think they will.  This is especially true of travelling in Asia, where the language barrier adds an element of surprise to all transactions.  Things often unfold differently than expected, but somehow magically still work out, likely due in large part to the good nature and general good intentions of the people.  

I met some nice travelers in the guesthouse here, including my second travelling beekeeper: who knew that this seasonal work was so conducive to a travel lifestyle? We had a fire and some interesting chats.  I also used the unexpected time to finally sort out my email troubles; I’ve been locked out of all my accounts since I left Thailand due to security features detecting I am in an unusual area which was super frustrating. I also managed to buy the second part of my flight home, which I started in Luang Prabang, but didn’t finish, so that is finally sorted.

I’ve read and been told quite a bit about Vietnamese people being swindlers, thieves and maybe not so friendly, so I’m a bit nervous about heading there. I’ve also heard though that the food is world class and the scenery stunning, so I’m sure it will not be as hard in real life as it seems in the mind, as is the case on so many occasions.

Day 12 – Muang Xen, Vietnam
Entry into Vietnam

Noy and I had another strong conversation this morning and seem to have hashed out our differences, so all is well for now.   Finallywe have made it into Vietnam. We are currently in Muang Xen, just 22kms from border.  The road was downhill switchbacks all the way, so while not quite as picturesque as the one in Laos, it was still exhilarating!

Though we did not ride far today, we may not go further, as we are just sorting out logistics, currency, SIM cards etc.  This is fine by me, as I’m feeling a little under the weather and my knee is very sore.

Now we are enjoying a coffee with sweetened condensed milk; a treat reserved for Asia. It’s delicious!  It tastes like chocolate and gives us a place to eat our lunch, which we brought with us from Nong Het. I managed to get a SIM card working in my phone so I now have internet on the fly, without having to wait for wifi.

Day 13 – Hoa Binh, Vietnam
First impressions

Ok, up after a good long sleep and rest for my leg, and ready for another round of Asian madness. This chapters flavour: Vietnamese.

Since arriving in Vietnam I have been regaled with “hellos”, all produced suddenly, and at full volume, which comes across as very aggressive. Yesterday, while out for an exploratory bike ride through town, a scooter with a mom and two kids pulled me over to practice their English with me. The 9 yr old girl and 5 yes old boy were almost fluent, and had apparently learned from the internet and a learning program their mom had supplied them. The mom seemed to speak no English. Amazing!

The hotel here already shows an improvement in infrastructure. In Laos, the drain from the sink would empty out onto the floor at your feet to be absorbed by the shower drain, (a great adventure whenever washing out food tins or coffee grounds), but here there is actual plumbing, and a primitive toilet flush instead of just a bucket of water.  

The horns are a big thing here in Vietnam. In Laos they use them politely to scurry animals off the roads since every town is right along the roadside because of the steepness of the terrain (except in the rare case of a town situated on a valley bottom where a river runs through it), and the dogs, pigs, chickens, ducks, cows, and children all range free.  Here they seem to just honk for fun, and it’s endless, and gets old really quickly.

The stores here are something else. Like your grandparents closet, they are overflowing with dusty, poorly stacked stuff that looks like it’s been to the their side of the world and back.  And judging by some of the wild and crazy methods of transport I have seen on the road, often piled higher than one’s ability to believe possible, in some case I guess it has.

Here are some sights from the little town where we are. The last one is a river flowing right across a road with garbage strewn on the downstream side. These three functions would normally be separated in N. America.

Just withdrew 3,000,000 (that’s 3 million, folks) Vietnamese dong from a bank machine (=171$ CND) mind.blown.

From a preliminary search on Google Earth, it looks like our road from here follows the river valley and therefore will be mainly flat with some hilly sections. Hallelujah! This means we should make good time and also will be easier on my knee.  It’s a challenge to find out which towns have actual lodging for visitors, as there are many small towns along the way, but the lodging seems fairly far apart actually.  The weather, as mentioned, is quite a bit warmer here, though today looks like it’s threatening rain. We’ve had low cloud in the mornings for the past week, which leant itself to some lovely mountain feels.

In Hoa Bin I find a hotel off the beaten path and check the price and have a look at the room. All is well, it is clean, and affordable. The woman affectionately takes my hand as she is showing me from room to room, so I know I’m in a good place. Communication breaks down though, when she insists on writing notes to me in Vietnamese on tiny sticky notes. I try to get her to use my phone so it can be translated, but apparently she falls into my father’s category when it comes to technology: luddite.

We start to try and find someone else who can help us, and before long an English teacher pulls up on a scooter and offers his service. By the time Noy arrives all is settled. She is pleased with the room and I have a guide for my dinner choice for the evening in exchange for offering some time to speak with his students so they can practice their English.

They are so friendly, her husband even take me across the street for a tour of their house, which is massive in Vietnamese terms and even in western terms. High ceilings, beautiful solid wood bannisters, and a 180 deck overlook the rooftops of the city. Then they show me the pictures of their three kids on the walls, as babies and with their spouses. They are clearly so proud and happy with their lives. Lovely!

I’m feeling quite pleased with myself all around for accomplishing so much on my own, and after a shower to freshen up I head out on foot into the market across the street. Spying two sweet little boys I start to sign communicate with their parents as I watch them. It’s not long before one of them bursts into tears. I have this effect on babies here, it seems.  Was it the wild, red hair?   Haha.

I head to a coffee shop for a yummy Vietnamese coffee, as it’s late afternoon, and before lonI head to a coffee shop for a yummy Vietnamese coffee, as it’s late afternoon, and before long am in the most elaborate photo shoot with the owner (who is the same age as me). She uses an app to put ridiculous eyebrows on our faces (I guess she noticed I have none!) and got her daughter to take photo after photo. I finally had to shut her down, as I just wanted to enjoy my coffee. I paid and left to meet the English teacher, Paul, who offered to help me find some good eats for dinner.

Back at the hotel, I hopped on the back of his scooter and we went to a great local market where he introduced me to a female colleague of his, Emily, who was minding her grandmothers stall. He enlisted her help, as she knew the market well, and the three of us explored the market for some chicken. We found delicious stuffed tofu instead, and I bought some farm fresh tomatoes from her stall. Then Paul and I hammed up selling vegetables at the stall while Emily videoed for use in his class to practice listening to English. We had a lot of laughs and took some fun selfies. 

As I couldn’t find rice or cooked vegetables at the market, Paul brought me back to a little restaurant across from our hotel and helped organize with her that I get some rice and green beans. (Which were absolutely delicious, btw).  As she was cooking them, someone came in and already had both the eyebrows photo of me with the coffee vendor, and the video we made at the market on her phone.  It was wild! Then the owner wanted a photo with me, haha.  She plopped a roll of pork wrapped in a green leaf and fried on my plate and again, it was so delectable!  Needless to say I ate like a queen.  It’s actually hard to order the right amount of food here, and I often find I end up with too much, but I love how you can bring food into a restaurant, and as long as you order something, they are happy to help you make it all into a meal.  

I finished the night off by meeting three students of Paul’s to help them practice their English and we had a blast playing charades and sharing dreams and fancy drinks. What a fun day! And here I was nervous about Vietnam, haha. I just had the best day ever!

Day 14 – Anh Son, Vietnam
Day 3 in Vietnam – Delayed Culture Shock!

This place is like Laos on steroids. Closer to China than Thailand in its sensibility, there is brashness, noise and attitude everywhere you look. Riding my bike I get quite irritated by the constant “hellos” and honking horns, which seem to be more about “get out of my way” than courtesy, and an excuse to drive too fast right in the middle of the road.

88 kms today, our longest day yet. The same again tomorrow will get us in to Vinh. My “hello” basket was empty long before the ride was done. My day was bookended by drunken, extremely loud groups of men eating and smoking at both morning and evening meals. The scenery was spectacular.  I was mobbed more than once, the most notable time being by a drunken wedding. My knees hurt and I’m spent. There is cigarette smoke seeping through the pores of this hotel room and it will not be stopped. Vietnam is loud. More tomorrow.

Day 15 – Vinh, Vietnam

I realize that my difficult day the other day was mostly due to the adjustment in culture between Laos and Vietnam.  I took a pretty heavy dose of music therapy that third day, plugging my headphones in to ride and practicing saying no just to remember I could, to keep my sanity. All good now 😊

Laos is more like Thailand, in that there is an undercurrent of peacefulness and reverence. Their demeanour is gentle and happy, and their values lie with life. Vietnam is more like China, in that they are loud, brash and dirty, spitting on the street, pushing in front of you, yelling to get someone’s attention, and their values are more material in nature, such as success, more about progress than family, and material vs. spiritual.  They make shrines of their cars, and archways over streets with great pomp and show, but lacking in beauty and grace.  They litter, and smoke, and crowd you, and don’t seem to care if their environment is beautiful or clean. 

Some of the more inane behaviours are hard to fathom, such as shouting “hello!!” At you, even after you’ve answered them, and doing it again if you pass by them twice, even though they have no other words to engage you with in English.  Then they cackle and say something to their neighbours in Vietnamese.  It’s annoying and inane, but generally innocent, and ultimately reflects a great enthusiasm to engage.  All this takes a bit of getting used to, but once you “normalize” to it as best you can, you find openly curious, helpful and friendly people with a lot of national pride.

So far all of Asia is a much more social culture in general than Canada, and it’s taken a while to simply trust that I am safe, and people are good and well-meaning.  So far I have not felt any dishonesty here though, apart from one dodgy roadside vendor who may or may not have ripped me off, though I can’t say for sure, and his weirdo “uncle”, who grabbed the candy I was offering to the kids nearby and tried to give out the whole bag, while grabbing a bunch for himself.

There were a lot of weddings on the way, and one group called me over.  I wanted to get a picture of the nice traditional dresses the ladies were wearing, and before you know it a crowd of drunken, reveling people were surrounding me. It was pretty funny actually.  They started taking shots of me, so I pulled my camera out too, haha… Then I got the heck out of dodge.

At another pee stop, a woman gave me a bag of cookies and two energy drinks as a gift from Vietnam to Canada in the market.  I later handed them out to school-children and was given another bag of candy by a man unloading a truck.  In general, my impression is of a country determinedly, and with great energy, occupying a country that has only recently been unified under local rule, and is somehow on a ground level unified in the task of putting Vietnam on the world stage through tourism.  It’s quite remarkable really, considering their recent history of country-wide war, and the destruction, displacement, and division that happened there.

Again, the scenery was stunning, especially the mountains coming into Anh Son.  Pretty much every time I stopped, a crowd would gather, and someone would goad their kid to try and speak English with me, the same three phrases: “how old are you?”, “where you come from?”, “what is your name?”. 

Then outside the cities of Co Cuong and Anh Son, there were huge fields of agriculture, and the terrain began to change, while the land became less beautiful and more impacted by human uses.  There was a lot of large-scale rice harvesting going on, still carried out primarily with the use of water buffalo

I noticed clusters of different types of commerce.  One stretch of the road has roadside stand after stand selling oranges. I passed them by thinking there would be more, but there wasn’t!  Apparently that was the strip to buy oranges.  Fortunately, this woman randomly called me over to give me a delicious orange she was eating, so I didn’t miss out. 

I did stop however when I saw an intriguing operation of what I’m pretty sure was turmeric being harvested and made into a tonic.  This woman gave me an impromptu tour of her little factory, including a taster of the product, which was delicious and felt very healthy in the mouth and body. 

I stopped several times to rest, instinctively seeking the company of females, as I felt much more synergy there, and ultimately felt safer.  This woman gave me sunflower seeds and let me use her washroom while I rested a spell.

Until finally, I reached Vinh city, and the inevitable happened… Aaahhhhhh ☕️

Day 15 – Vinh, Vietnam
Arrival to the coast

Well!  The last couple of days have been a chaotic whirlwind of long days, adjusting to a new culture, and travel logistics

It is with great relief and pride that I report I have reached Vinh City. My sore bottom is absorbing the merciful cushioning of an oversized chair at the moment while I wait for Noy who is about two hours behind.  As with most cities, Vinh has all the conveniences and inconveniences of a big city.  Amenities, selection, services, alongside smog, traffic, and noise.

To celebrate my arrival, I took a bus out to Cua Lo beach, about 20kms from Vinh to see the South China Sea. After so many days heading east overland, it felt like the appropriate thing to do was get right to the edge, and connect with the ocean to formalize my arrival.

The hotel owner and his daughter were so very kind, dropping everything to help me in my request about which bus to take to the beach.  She used her English to explain my request, resulting in him driving me to two different bus stations to find the right one.  I waited quite a while for the bus, vexing a little as the light was beginning to fade, but the lady vendor near the station championed my cause and made sure I didn’t leave or get on the wrong bus.  Then once on the bus a young girl who spoke English translated for the ticket taker that this was the last bus of the day and was coming directly back.

It was starting to get dark, so when they dropped me off, the ticket taker and the English-speaking girl quickly asked a man sitting at the stop with a motorcycle if he would drive me back to the city.  Hiring a motorcycle is common practice in Asia, but them helping me find someone not only made it waaay safer given the hour, but also took all the work out of it for me.

Another nice lady who spoke fairly good English and happened to be at the stop, and helped translate so I could arrange that we meet back there in 30 mins.  Then I went to the beach.  It was just dusk, so didn’t see much, but apparently it looks like this.  Purportedly this is one of the most beautiful beaches in Vietnam.

I didn’t see much, but I took my shoes off and the beach and was so soft and fine. Then I waded in the water and felt my feet sink into the sand.  I wandered up and down a few times, drinking in the sea and celebrating my arrival to the edge of the continent.

When It was time to go it felt like two soon, but as my motorcycle riding skills were put to the test in the raw anarchy of Asian traffic on the way home, I knew it was a good thing to have left early, and also, as it was post sunset and the temperature quickly dropping, good that I had not taken the dip I was drawn to.

This kind man drove me right to my hotel safely and charged less than I expected to pay.  He chatted away to me in Vietnamese, of which I understand only a sliver of his inference, and we had some pretty funny navigating challenges which looked like me clutching my phone with map gps with one claw hand and the motorbike with the other and making my best guesses to point at each intersection, phone in hand.  But I got back to the hotel safely, and once again I was treated so kindly, and everyone was so helpful.    

Some chaos ensued when Noy arriving later than me to Vinh City by about 1.5 hours rushed for her train station to get her ticket (I was on my way to the beach), and then couldn’t remember which hotel she’d told me to meet her at where I’d taken and paid for a room, so instead of checking in with me, she just took one on her own.

But that was just the beginning; this was the night we were supposed to discuss plans for the next leg of the trip.  Suddenly I’m scrabbling to get information over a chat from her and doing last minute research.  She has told me very little about her plan, so I’m making it up, mostly.

She tells me only after I ask her for information a number of times what her plan is, and what train she is on. She also says that I have to buy my ticket before 8am, it’s the law… 

Day 16 – Train to Hue, Vietnam
Bike trip ends here…

So I get up and out early after a late night of research and a stressed sleep and go before breakfast and to get to the train station, but they tell me my bike will take 7 days because there’s only one cargo train and they had one cancel.

This is not good news: I wanted my bike to come to my next stop, but it seems this is not possible. So I resign myself to sending it on to the stop to the south where I think Noy will be in a week.  When I go to buy my ticket, it turns out that in fact there is no time limit for purchasing a ticket, so I got up super early for nothing.  

When Noy comes to the station, she finds out same problem with her bike, so she’s suddenly having to figure out what to do for a week.  But then.. (the plot thickens), at about 15 minutes before our train arrives, she finds someone who speaks both Thai and Vietnamese, and they learn that it IS possible to get the bike sent overnight and she can have it meet her where she is going.  The train station employee who is processing her request imperialistically seems to say it’s only for her, so I sit tight in the waiting room.   

Then… even more last minute she finds out I can change mine too, and do I want to?

I say yes, and this lovely woman lobbies for us like a champion, all the while holding her heavy toddler son.  With the imperial lady, I get my money back (minus a 10% fee), then the baggage people are gone for the day but she lobbied with a guy on a motorcycle to go bring her back.  She comes back and protests loudly with wrinkled brows for about 7 mins while we are on the edge of our seats about missing our train before finally agreeing to make the change.

We get inside and I write the new place on the paper, but then the date is floating around.  This happens a lot with Noy, dates, prices, distances, time.. the value of these things move around constantly, so it’s super hard to get a fix on what’s actually happening.  First my will arrive tomorrow, then the day after, while all the while I feel so much time pressure by the imminent arrival of the train.   So I write my second destination on the order from, but the date keeps changing (probably a language thing, there are three women chattering away with great intensity in three different languages), and I start getting worried that I will get stuck waiting for my bicycle or that it will arrive just as I have to leave again and I’ll have to go through the production all over again of getting it shipped etc, and it all just feels so crazy and uncertain, at the last minute I pull out!!!!!!!

Aahhhhh

And then I realize, it could have been perfect…

But it’s too late now.

Face palm

So then I feel all conflicted.

But whatever, it is what it is…

And so the story goes on.  

And my bike goes to Ho Chih Minh city.  

Later I find out Noy thought I wanted to cycle from DaNang (which is actually a bit too far, especially with my sore knee).  We just didn’t have enough time to line up our plans here, so things kind of fell apart.  

Now I am on the train to Hue, and my bike will be shipped to Ho Chi Minh city within 5-7 days. In the interim I will be a tourist and explore Hue, Da Nang, and Hoi An, then take the sleeper train down to Saigon to meet my bike. 

Noy is taking this train further along to Tuy Hoa and receiving her bike within a day or two and then cycling as far as she can towards Ho Chi Minh before hopping a bus to (hopefully) meet me.  Then we will cycle together to Can Tho, which is on the Mekhong Delta and the highlight of the trip for Noy, before heading back to HCMC to fly Feb 3rd.

The last two days were 82-88km cycling days, and the last day in particular was really hard on my knee(s). They hurt right from the start (88kms today), and by the last 10kms I was willing myself forward like a wounded soldier.  The rest will be good for some tissue repair I’m sure, and my knees and body are grateful for a few recoup days, although I’m sure after a few I’ll be itching to get back on the bike again, and back in the saddle for a nice finish.

Epilogue

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this plan above is not what ended up happening.  Over the next week, I explored Hue, Da Nang and Hoi An within the timeline we had discussed.  I had a marvelous time, meeting other travelers, and taking in some of the fascinating history of those areas.  When it came close to the time to reconnect with Noy, I reached out to her for some information on her whereabouts and plan; she sent me some photos (“I’m having a lovely time”), but no info.  Without the information I needed in a timely manner, I was forced to make a decision independent of her.  Since it continued to seem to not be working, I elected to continue my exploration of the coast, tagging along with a growing motley crew of travelers I had been meeting along the way.

I grew to wish I had not booked my return ticket on Noy’s itinerary, but had done so with the information I had at the time, so hindsight’s 20/20 as they say.  I took a chance and instead of meeting my bike when it was scheduled to arrive, I headed south of Saigon to explore the Mekhong Delta before returning for my flight.  Just before this, Noy contacted me one last time and inquired whether I would like to go there with her.  Completely disillusioned by this point with her unreliability, I told her ‘no’, and went there on my own.  

Coincidentally, as I made my way from the train station to the bike shop she had mentioned to me where I could possibly locate a bike box for the return trip home, I ran into her in the street!  What are the chances?  Unfortunately the bike shop was closed.  Seeing her only confirmed the decisions I had made up until that point, and we continued to go separate ways until we met again at the airport where once again, in her presence, chaos ensued.  But in order to get that story, you’ll have to read my other blog entry on the rest of the journey of the coast of Vietnam by bus!

This officially wraps up the bicycle touring part of the journey. Thanks for joining me! 

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Isola/Izola, Slovenia

Well, finally we have passed through Croatia and are in Slovenia.  There really is a different feel here.  For one thing, we are back in the land of the Euro, versus the Kuna, which is the name of a small, weasel-like animal printed on the coins of Croatia.  The sea is a different colour blue, more navy blue than the crazy turquoise colour of the Adriatic, and the sky is lighter.  This combined with the coolness in the air really reminds me of home.

As we are waiting to be moved from the customs dock to our site, a friend and I go for a wander through town.  We find a delicious orange and chocolate ice cream for 1 Euro a scoop, a nice park on the point with gorgeous clear water, and a church on the high point with brightly-coloured adobe buildings around it. The people are immediately much more friendly, and the whole place feels really contented and relaxed.  We are looking forward to a glorious six days here.

The site is at the end of a labyrinth of boats, and requires another impressive parking job by the Captain.  In the end we are parked diagonally in a corner with both ends nearly touching the walls, it is that tight.  At the back, the rudder is slipped between two anchor chains that form a triangle of support for the dock’s gangway.  To the starboard side are moored several small boats and a concrete mooring block just under the water’s surface.  It is quite a feat to place a 90ft. boat so precisely in such a tight space, so further kudos to Captain Paul Kirby for his impressive maneuvering skills.

On the second day, a group of five of us rent a car and went for an epic drive.  We find a castle that is built into a cave with 45 kms of Karstic caves, like the ones we saw in Croatia, forming an underwater highway under the mountain range.  These have been turned into tourist attractions, which due to our time constraints we didn’t pay for, but we did explore the castle, which had various displays of the lifestyles and implements of that time.  This was nowhere near as well done as the display at Krka National Park, but the whole environment was very beautiful; a little settlement tucked into a green valley at the feet of these rocky cliff faces and caves.  There was even a jousting strip with a viewing box where they hold events to celebrate historic life.

We drove further along a lovely scenic route charted out on the map towards our destination, a gorgeous part of a river to the north of Isola.  As the day neared to a close, we pulled off the highway and found a campsite.  Although the man was nice, the sites were 10 Euros per person, and we decided we didn’t need to pay to sleep out under the stars, so in spite of the descending darkness, we pushed on.  By some beautiful synchronicity, we found the absolutely perfect spot that answered everybody’s requirements and prayers.

It was a lovely sandy spot right by the river and under the shelter of some leafy green trees.  It even had a fire ring and a little bench already there!  We had brought potatoes, red onions, oranges and olive oil to make a rustic salad our Aussie cook had learned while in Greece.  We wrapped potatoes and onions and some corn we had nipped from a field along the way in tinfoil, and while they cooked in the fire, shared a nice bottle of sweet wine I had purchased from a household winery in Novigrad.  After a satisfying meal, we set our sleeping bags up in a square around the fire, and fell into a cozy and fresh camp sleep.  By chance, there was a small church just above us on a hill whose hourly chimes felt sweet and homey.

The next day, after rising, tidying, and a light breakfast and stretch, we headed on our way.  We were conscious of the time, as we were meant to be back at the car rental shop by noon, and had work to do that day on the boat, but we didn’t let it curb our enjoyment of the stunning landscape we had found ourselves in.  We had driven quite close to the Alps, and the countryside was the most vivid green I have ever seen.

At a turning in the road where we were meant to cross back over the river towards the highway, those in the car unanimously agreed to head upward instead, on impulse.  We rose instead into the foothills of the Alps along a very tight switchback road, arriving finally in the sweetest village I have ever seen.  It was the kind of place you could park your car and just walk away from the outside world and never miss a thing.  We decided that this was the place to have coffee.

We found a super sweet little bed and breakfast, which smelled like chicken soup when we walked in and were delighted to also see a cappuccino machine!  Although the coffee was a little weak, the view was breathtaking.  I was so excited to be so close to the Alps, which I have read and wondered about since I was a little girl.  Now I was actually here!!  It was easily as beautiful and impressive as BC’s coastal mountains, and surpassed all my expectations.

On our way back we drove through many picturesque small towns and valleys that can only be described as verdant.  I have never seen such brilliant greens, and this coming from a native of beautiful BC is a statement indeed.  The nicest town we passed was called Kanal.  It straddled the river with the classic stone buildings I am now becoming familiar with in this area, and had lovely rises and falls throughout the small town, surrounded by this magnificent countryside.  I would love to go back there.

On the way back we took a stop to jump in the river.  The water was very milky light green and shockingly cold.  It was a good way to wake up and refresh ourselves from all the driving, which in all turned out to be about 4 hours each way.  We were late getting back, but it was so worth it!  We packed so much into those 12 short hours, and saw so much of the country.

When we got back there was still time for us to complete our chores as part of the Amara Zee appreciation day, during which we lavished care and attention on the more elaborate needs of the boat that has carried us like a big mama turtle on her back all this way.  Then we had a fun drive in a kiddies/tourist train, which we all packed into with some on the roof.  We had a tour of the town, and then arrived at the billboard on the outskirts of town that advertised the show.  We had fun taking a group picture in front of the billboard and then came back to the boat.

That night we had the most magnificent meal of the trip so far.  Several of the sponsors have treated our group to meals, as part of their hospitality, but the meals have ranged, in general, from monotonous to atrocious.  This meal, however, was so delectable, even the cooks in our group were raving and drooling.  It was served somewhat like tapas, with many different cold and warm dishes, mostly seafood, but also some cheese, veggies and delicious, bottomless wine.  The hospitality also was wonderful.  It was a meal not soon to be forgotten and the most wonderful ending to a magical day.

On another occasion, a group of us tried to go to hot springs, which, according to the tourist information lady, was at literally the other end of the country.  We were all tantalized by the possibility of warm spring water and a natural setting, so set off on the drive.  When we arrive at our destination, we found it to be a spa therapy centre for old aged people!  Imagine our shock, after sitting for 3 hours in the car.  However, it was a remarkable thing for me, to drive from one end of the country in less than the time it takes me to drive home for Christmas to see my family who live in the same province as me!

We quickly recovered our aims and redirected our mission to the capital, Ljubljana, which was a place that I really wanted to see.  We had an amazing meal, maybe the first meal I have paid for since leaving Vancouver 3.5 months ago, and then walked briefly through the city and towards the squat, which was meant to be a place of art and culture.  We found an area with tons of art on the walls, graffiti, mosaics and collage.  There were a couple of bars; inside one was a live dj with really interesting projections, and a table with artists selling their comics and various other work.  The area was really interesting, and in general, I found Ljubljana to be full of art.  A very interesting city, and I’m glad I went.

Isola also had the first coin-operated laundry we had encountered since leaving home.  I did my laundry in the super efficient, state of the art washing facilities with a great sense of appreciation, after washing my clothes by hand for the past 3 months.  It was brilliant, made all the more special by a great connection with the lady owner, who also folded all my clothes when I showed up late to pick my clothes up.  What a sweet treat!

The people in this town were definitely our best audience.  Most of them stayed until the end, and cheered demonstratively at the end.  In general though, the people here were so warm.  As a Canadian I really noticed the absence of the precognition of fear around social rejection that creates such a chilly atmosphere of correctness in our public spaces (though certainly not our private ones, as people are wonderful and warm under this protective surface).

We all had a lovely time here, and were sad to say goodbye, but onward we sailed this Tues. morning towards Lignano, Italy.

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Novigrad and Umag, Croatia

Now that we are on the Istrian Coast, there is a much greater Italian influence.  This is due not just to its proximity, but also because this area was part of Italy from the 1st to the 2nd World War.  There is a noticeable change in the temperature, with more humidity and wind, and a definite sense that we are in the latter part of summer and nearing the shift towards fall.

The Istrian peninsula is fairly small, and so the many small towns are quite close together.  In Novigrad we had the good fortune to rent bikes for two days, and really enjoyed cycling around the countryside, visiting the many small villages and farmland.  The earth here is a remarkable bright burnt orange colour, and all the more striking in contrast to the rich green of the vineyards and sagey colour of the olive groves.

The bike map promises several clear options of routes to take, but in reality they are not so well marked, nor are the roads even that well marked for towns on some of the back routes, however we find our way to some semblance of our goal, and delight in the effort of finding the path.  I have many funny photos of us pulled over to the side and pouring over the map.

By the second day we had figured out how to use the map better, and gotten a sense of the standard of trail to expect, thereby reducing our choices away from some of the more adventurous options.  We cycled along the coast, past several seaside communities and campsites and finally found our way to our goal, a cave attraction marked on the map.

For only a small fee (50 Kuna), we were guided by a pleasant and humorous young woman who took us through the mostly horizontal cave and pointed out different aspects of the stalagmites and stalactites.  She educated us as to their method of formation, and the visible history contained within them.  In some of the areas the mineral growth had stopped, due to it being dried by a fire during past use of the cave for living in.  There were places that the columns had been broken off and taken as souvenirs by tourists, and others where there was writing from the 1800’s.  She pointed out different shapes in the formations, and talked about how they are formed.  My favourite part was her definition of eccentric, which is a type of stalagmite whose growth is not determined by the forces of gravity, but grows in all directions at once.  It sounded like a positive thing, at least for a human being trying to live a creative life.

Umag has the feeling of quite a modern place with mixed influences.  Although fairly small, it has a fully developed European feel, but a fair amount of art and culture as well, which clashes with the numerous beach side resorts and theme style bars built for the fast food tourism industry.  People who don’t want to adapt to their environments or another culture, but want to have all that they are used to at home in the place that they go and who are willing to pay whatever it takes to get this.  It is this mentality that strips places of their uniqueness and leads us with a ubiquitous and homogenous face of tourism around the globe.  Globalization, they call it.  Unfortunate.

Here in Umag, we have our first rain since Hvar.  In a way it is a welcome relief.  The sky is beautiful in its stormy greys and wind.  We celebrate the recent organization and cleaning of the fore hatch (a notoriously crowded area of the boat) with a spontaneous disco.  Robbie the lighting operator sets up the new LED lights that have just arrived with one of our many visitors and plays dj with his mega mini speaker, and all take turns partaking in the joyfulness.  It is a wonderful example of Caravan magic.  Not only the spontaneity and creativity involved, but also the propensity to making meaning out of our own efforts and progress and celebrating those things that we work for, instead of celebrating in someone else’s creation to get away from work.

After the shows, the captain suggests we have a party to celebrate leaving Croatia; we decide on a Superhero theme.  A group of people develop an elaborate murder mystery game that involves everyone present, Robbie sets up the fore hatch disco again, and the cooks plus a committee make delicious natchos and Sangria.  We had the most marvelous time, and I have some hilarious video of both the creative costumes people came up with, and the fore hatch disco, which was only big enough for about 3-4 people comfortably at a time.  One had to go down the long hallway of the companionway past all the bunk rooms to get to the small secret room of flashing lights, rocking music and people dancing.  The game was also really fun, with a secret murderer picking off party goers, who would die spontaneous, dramatic deaths while teams of people looked for the Kryptonite (glow sticks) concealed around the boat by following clues in order to disarm the killer.

We had an early start the next day and sailed out of Croatia and on to Slovenia.

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Biograd, Zadar, and Sali, Croatia

Biograd and Zadar had very similar feels to them, both towns are about the same size, and displayed the more European influence that I am starting to equate with the more northern part of the Dalmatian coast.  Zadar had some interesting history in that it had been bombed quite extensively on two occasions during various wars, and so lost a lot of its old buildings and history.  During the last bombing, it’s residents were locked within their own homes without adequate food or water for 3 months during the conflict.  It is yet another example of how war is so destructive, not just of physical landscape and the immediate impact on people’s lives, but also on invisible things like history, and a sense of place, and trust.

We had a very wavy spot here, so much so that we completely modified the show to eliminate the more technical flying sections, which shortened it by at least 20 mins.  But the exposure was westward, so we had lovely long sunsets, and also great swimming here off of the boat, due to being right on the open coast, and not tucked into a little bay like in most places.  The bays shelter us from waves, but also trap all the scum from the water, and foster the growth of algae, etc. making the swimming not as nice.

Zadar’s most amazing features were an organ built into the seawall that made sound generated by the wind produced by the passing waves.  It was quite a long stretch of the seawall, and collected groups of people at all times of the day who would sit or lay with their heads against the openings and listen to the sighing swells of notes and sounds.  It was quite special, but it would have been nice to see more of the inner workings of the organ.  Also at this location was a giant solar panel built into the sidewalk.  It generated enough power not only to produce a fun light display at night of moving patterns of different colours across the panel, but also to power the street lights along the waterfront.  Also in Zadar were the remains of Roman columns from the forum at the centre of the town right near, of course, the church.  These were a very cool thing to see.

Biograd did not have many distinguishing features, other than offering us the first hot shower we had had since leaving Tivat, Montenegro on July 20th.  The marina facilities were clean and spacious.  We were all blown away, and used them extensively to scrape away unwanted body hair (no shaving on the boat, due to finicky filters, etc.), soothe sore muscles and just generally pamper ourselves.  What a treat!!  I also finally bought a mask and snorkel here, which I had been deliberating on for a while, so that was exciting, and bought a sarong to use as a curtain on my bed in my shared room with three people.

The island of Sali was I think my favourite stop on the tour so far.  The town had a small, country feel without the overblown tourism of the other islands we have been.  The water was beautifully clean, the best swimming right off the boat that we’ve had, with the colour so magnificent and clear.  We had a lovely group dinner here, compliments of our sponsor and this place showered us with donations, given spontaneously by the residents.  They brought by baked goods, a big bag of potatoes, and wine, as well as a huge pot of cooked spaghetti.  How lovely!!  Somehow it is so much nicer to receive something that has been made for you, than just money, it really feels like it comes from the heart.  And isn’t it interesting that the country folk, and those with usually the least money, are the most giving.  There was an absolutely gorgeous seaside walk here on a dirt trail around the point, and the setting was just so peaceful and beautiful, it was idyllic.  None of us wanted to leave, but onward we sailed to our next port: Novigrad.

This was the longest sail we have had so far, 24 hours.  The moon was nearly full and absolutely gorgeous, casting milky light into the sky and it’s cool clarity on the sea.  The amount of light cast by the moon made staying up for the night watches much easier.  We played music, and laid in a heap star gazing and sharing stories.  At one point we saw some strange lights in the sky, which we chocked up to military activity, but of course at first we thought it might be a UFO.  The night was so moist that the water was beginning to pool on the decks, but I slept out anyway.  I just couldn’t bring myself to go inside after the fresh beauty of the night.  When I woke up, we were just arriving at Novigrad.

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Trogir and Sibenik, Croatia

While our watch was working on our sail from Makarska to Trogir, I was reading the cruising book as per my normal routine while doing the navigation portion of my shift, to learn more about our destination city.  The book said the best and most usual approach is from the W, because that is where the marina is, and that the bridge connecting E and W no longer raises to allow boat traffic.  When I checked on the charts, I noticed that we were scheduled to approach Trogir from the NE, so when I informed the captain of this oversight I saved us an extra 3 hours sail, as we would have had to backtrack and then circle around the large island.  It also made the next leg of our journey, onward to Sibenik shorter, as it was more direct from the NE side of the bridge.  It was a good feeling to actually be that helpful while on my watch, so that was pleasing.

Coming into the port was dramatic.  Just as we entered the narrowing of the approach to the harbour, the captain lost the use of one of the props.  We were sitting dead in the water for a suspended period of tenseness, while the wind steadily pushed us farther into the harbour towards outcoming boats, and some that were anchored in the approach area.  It was nerve racking; without both props, we would lose half of our maneuverability, making docking nearly impossible.  We circled around with our one prop, and radioed another large ship sitting in the harbour approach to ask if we could use his inflatable as a push boat.  Thankfully, they complied readily.

The British crew member came to our rescue like James Bond, racing ahead to recon the docking location, and then racing back in time to help push our bow in towards our point of destination.  We were due to dock alongside a touring yacht which was already in our spot, and though the docking went amazing well, considering the circumstances, there was a slight lag in the communication between the steering of our large boat and the aid needed by the small inflatable, so we came in a bit fast, and with a little too much angle towards the shore.  Our bowsprit was just above the height of the nice wooden railing of the other boat, and as it passed over left a long scratch in the shiny veneer.  Fortunately though, this gave them something to push against, and they helped redirect our boat so that it landed alongside.  Apart from the frustration of the crew on the other boat not understanding our urgent English commands regarding the order of the ropes and the complex directions relative to securing them, we otherwise came alongside without too much hassle.  One of our highly competent crew members was quick to refinish the place in the railing that had been scraped, and found out that the boat was due to be refinished soon anyway, so the scratch was a minor issue.

Trogir is a tiny island between the mainland city and a larger island, with bridges on both sides connecting them.  As with most of these ports, the old city is on this peninsula, and boasts amazing history, with the entire island being covered with cobblestone streets, ornate stone buildings and narrow streets open only to foot passengers.  There was an amazing church in the main square from the 12th century.  It was huge, and filled with different forms of art built right into the church: red stone basins for water, sculptures, motifs on walls and ceilings, ornately carved mahogany wood.  The ceilings were high and vaulted, and it had a three story clock tower.  It had an immense feeling to it, and I tried to imagine how much more impressive it would have been back when it was built, as it must have dwarfed everything around it.

Unfortunately, the old city was crawling with tourists: sunburns carrying credit cards and cameras, and sporting bad fashion.  It was hard during the day time to get any sense of the surroundings due to the sheer numbers of people, but later in the day, when the crowds thinned, you could find yourself quite alone for periods of time in some of the back streets, and then there was a really neat atmosphere.

On the waterfront where we were moored, there is a strip of expensive restaurants, vendors booths with the same old trinkets we have seen everywhere, and buskers with the same schtick (marionettes that play music, accompanied by a small ghetto blaster, for example).  In the evening we are treated to the battle of the bands, as clubs on both sides of the water blast their respective music, which carries easily over the water.  It’s a bit much, over all, though just around the corner there is a lovely breezy bit of green space with a magical tree that has grown into and back out of the earth a few times, creating a fun climbing sculpture.

Sibenik however, presented a wonderful experience.  As a larger city, it was a little less overwhelmed with tourism and more plugged into the purpose of the country.  There was a sizeable old town, with some amazing monuments, including the largest all stone cathedral in the country, the Cathedral of St. James, which I didn’t enter, cheaply refusing to pay the minor fee.  There was also the hilltop St. Ana Fortress, which we snuck into from the graveyard that was also perched high overlooking the city and the harbour below.  In the morning, we enjoyed coffee on an outdoor patio restaurant beside an herb garden, which we later discovered was the medieval garden of St. Lawrence’s monastery, and one of the up and coming sites in the city.

The coastline here is very convoluted and interesting.  There was a boat taxi to a beach on an island, past a fortress in the Sibenski Canal that departed from right beside the boat.  My new Lonely Planet guidebook, which I procured with the help of two Croatian friends who are visiting the boat, tells me that this is the fortress of St. Nikolas, which endures from the 15th century, when the city was under Venetian rule.

But by far the most spectacular thing we did in this area was the Krka National Park.  We had a spectacular last minute escape from the boat in the early hours of the morning after a late night, and barely made it to the bus.  We were greatly aided by a Croatian girl, whose grandfather lived near the park and she was baptized in the church in what was now a national park, so this place held a special place in her life and she was happy to share it with us.

The bus took us to a small town at a place where the river starts to widen, and near to the sea.  While we waited for her to gather information about the park, we had a nice swim in the mixed salt and fresh water of the estuary, my first fresh water swim since arriving in Europe in late May.  We took a really nice ride in a riverboat to get to the park, and after she orchestrated a great group rate for us, we were in!

The main attraction of the park is a series of waterfalls which are formed by “Tufa”; mineral formations from the water that then collect enough soil for plants to grow on them, making a cascading series of waterfalls which move around green tufts growing magically right in the middle of the falls.  There was quite an extensive series of pools and falls, with the nicest swimming I’ve had in my time here at the bottom, with perfect temperature fresh water, and in the flow and spray from the special cleansing energy of the falls.

There was a beautiful boardwalk around the lip of the falls through a green and shady forest.  There were numerous pools with groups of fish suspended Zen-like in the current, with only the slightest movement to keep them in line with the sweet spot that allowed the current to slip around their smooth bodies with the least amount of effort on their part.  There was also the reconstruction area of a hydroelectric dam that was the second of it’s kind to be built in history (the first being American), it was the first to actually be operational, and powering the town and surrounding area with electricity.

A real highlight of this already amazing experience was the historic display of traditional use of this area for milling flour.  There were 6 or 7 buildings showing different aspects of traditional life, with people dressed in period costumes showing us how they worked.  There was a blacksmith’s bellows, an old stone house set up to show how the people would have cooked and lived, and then information on the fishing and farming of the areas.  The flour mills were the most amazing though, with large stone wheels being turned by the water, routed under the floor of the building.  Then next door was a giant washing machine made of two huge timber hammers driven by a waterwheel, with the water flowing through the room and past the clothes to flush them clean, and a gorgeous cave-like natural bathing room, with water flowing through different pools and out by a river along the wall.  I was really impressed by the authenticity of the displays, and how un-commercial they looked, and loved that all were operational with people demonstrating their function.  It was very interesting.

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Ploche and Makarska, Croatia

Ploche was a fairly ordinary looking town, which was a welcome relief after the hubbub of Hvar’s tourism. As we approached the inlet, the first thing we saw was a huge industrial dock for aluminum and coal, with loading cranes and a train yard nearby. To my great excitement and pride, it was I at the helm during that approach, and I got to guide the Amara Zee into the narrowing channel that was the approach to Ploche. The excitement continued even after the captain took over the helm from me, as the mooring site was closer than we had expected, and on our starboard (right) side. Since we always dock on the port (left) side, we did a dramatic, high speed basically tail skid into place. Our watch was on ropes, so I was standing at the back of the boat, with the wind blowing into the horrified look of amazement on my face as the back end of the boat careened towards the solid wall of the dock. It was a perfect maneuver, and we landed with aplomb right in our spot.

As with nearly every town, there was a group of old men clustered on the nearby bench all discussing exactly how things should be done, etc. (I think they are following us!), pointing, calling out directions in Croatian. Our crew, and probably every boat’s crew, is under strict instructions to follow only the captain’s commands during docking and leaving, so this would be an unhelpful activity even if they weren’t speaking a language we didn’t understand. However, they were there to witness this magnificent parking job, and the captain received enthusiastic shoulder claps for this fancy driving, and seemed spritely and pleased with himself. It was a great entrance, to arrive skidding up to the dock with a 90ft. sailing vessel. Nicely done ☺

This mainland town had the signature Adriatic inlet, with all manner of small boats tied up Balkan style, front on to the break wall with a line or two to the shore and a line to an anchor at the back. Because of the shape of the inlet, this town also had water bordering it on two other sides as well, with a nice shady swim spot on one, (though its northern exposure made it quite windy), and the other connected by a salt water canal from our inlet to a waterway a little further south along the coast line.

We had a lovely group dinner here, compliments of our sponsors, and every one had fun dressing up to go out. We were served meat platters with pork chops and lamb sausage, fries and salad, with all the wine or beer we could drink. In fact, although I left early, I heard that for those who stayed, the brandy bottle came out, and they were there late enjoying the wonderful hospitality of our host restaurant owner until the responsibility of finishing it had been fulfilled.

The people were the friendliest of anywhere we have been so far. Immediately upon arriving we got the impression that they knew we were coming, and were warmly curious. The locals continually approached us, with none of the usual aversion to stranger, or even respectful distance that you find in many places. And when it came time to do the show, they were a wonderful audience. Warm, accessible, appreciative; they came with their families, and most stayed for the entire thing, coming up afterwards to shake our hands and offer donations. Even though I got sick with food poisoning just before the show, and had the hardest time performing I think I ever have had in over 18 years on the stage, I couldn’t help staying out afterwards just to receive their wonderful energy.

After the show we struck and packed up the boat, doing it in 1.25 hours instead of the 2.5 it took us the first time. We were proud of that. In the morning we sailed for Makarska, which is where I sit now, in the quiet shade of a hilltop sanctuary with a small square stone church dedicated to St. Peter. It rests on a keyhole shaped peninsula that juts out into the Adriatic, gorgeously clear, peacock blue and jade green waters lapping on all sides.

To the right of me, the beaches around the coastline are wall to wall with sunbathers, like pink bacon, they soak in the sun on colourful beach towels or under bright umbrellas. The beaches in that direction must stretch for more than 2 kms, and there are people as far as I can see. Bordering the beach is a temporary village of vendor’s booths selling tourist trinkets, food, t-shirts and cups, small rides, etc.. Ahead of me, in the open waters, there are numerous parasailers , with colourful chutes. In town there is a funny bronze sculpture of a man and a woman, boasting over a hundred years of tourism. The woman’s right breast is polished shiny by all the hands that have touched it after posing for a photo. From what I gather, this place is a destination for more local tourism from other parts of Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia.

On the left, the water dips into a little bay, which borders the old town of Makarska, and forms the shipping port where we are moored. Tour boats come in daily that do runs to the outlying tourist destinations of the island of Hvar, and Bol beach, among others. They moor to each other side by side in a big line; we are literally hemmed in on all sides by boats. The coastline continues to the left around a rocky bluff, and there is an absolutely beautiful nature trail along the cliff top that follows the water through a breezy pine forest. It passes a seaside cave about 40m deep which has been turned into a bar: quite the novelty, then continues on for a good 30min. walk or so, before terminating in a clothing optional beach. This is a secluded clamshell shaped beach with cliffs on all sides and a sweet little shady area for people to retreat to from the sun. The atmosphere is very low key and tolerant.

But in fact, clothing seems fairly optional almost everywhere. On the crowded beaches, it seems to be only topless for girls, but only just around the corner is a spot for those who prefer to be nude, and rather than impose their preferences on each other like they do in N. America, people just seem to choose their locations. It is so nice to be able to swim in these lovely waters au natural.

This town has a reputation for being one of the biggest party towns in Croatia. The streets are noisy until dawn with revelers, and then the sound manufacturing is taken over by the morning buzz of scooters, street sweepers and business traffic. It’s almost cacophonic, and yesterday I had to give up my preference of sleeping on the deck in order to actually get a full night’s sleep. However, as with all things, when taken in their right place and at the right time, most things can be enjoyed.

Yesterday a small group of us went on an absolutely lovely and challenging hike up the coastal mountains that back the town. I am told they are the longest mountain range in Croatia, and a large portion of it is protected park area. Their looming presence behind and above the town reminds me of Vancouver, especially the way the weather catches on them. I love the way you can track the Earth’s formational history and tendencies through them. We journeyed up a well-formed track to a ranger’s hut, where the parkie told us about the botany of the area and where to walk the trails.

We walked up to a fortress built up against a cave in the mountain’s lower with history dating back to the defense against the Turks in the 1700’s. It overlooked a sweet little church, this one dedicated to St. Antony, the landscape below and finally the sea. The windows were reinforced with aging timber, and some of the rock had fossilized wood and plant matter in it, as if it had been made of clay.
We rested in the cool of the fairly small space behind the old rocks of the fortress wall, and tried to imagine what it might have been like to be behind those walls in a defense situation. Were there women and children crouched in the cave that receded into the rock? Did they have supplies? It must have been a very scary time.

Our walk continued on along the foothills of the mountain through various scree terrains, and past many a fortuitous fig tree, upon which we gorged happily until our fingers were sticky with the juices. The plants and trees here are what we would consider exotic back in N. America, with fig, olive, pomegranate, and rosemary and oregano growing wild and plentiful. Finally, after a good 3.5 hours of walking, we ended up at the beach and soothed our aching feet in the luscious water, placing smooth flat stones warmed by the sun between our toes to open them back up after being cramped in our shoes. It was a very satisfying day.

The night before was an Independence Day celebration for Croatia, and they set up a series of bbq’s right in front of our boat. As the evening came they cooked delicious mussels in giant round vats, stirring them with long spoons, and wearing matching striped shirts with traditional beret-style hats. They also cooked squid on the bbq, and whole fish, which were so fresh they were sweet, and tasted of the sea. There was live music and enormous crowds, which were fun to watch from the boat for a time, but then after the fireworks it felt time to choose our own scene for a bit of solidarity, so our group wandered out into the night life of Makarska to find our place in it.

We ended up at a bar, which had patrons sitting in the outside seats, but not a soul inside, so the 20 or so of us moved into the empty bar and took it over. We danced and reveled to our hearts’ content until all hours of the night, with the bar pretty much to ourselves. It was a grand time.

Our first show here, 7th in our tour, was last night and went exceedingly well. Despite not having our usual delivery of chairs for the public to sit on, most of the audience stayed until the end throughout the 1.25 min. show. We are getting stronger and more grounded, and the show is beginning to be fun. It has an excellent flow, with just enough rests and work, and good pacing of fast and slow, and is not too long. People really seem to like it, although there are some potentially challenging political views and quite convoluted language. Although the show is sung in English, there are Croatian subtitles, but I think there is enough to look at without, and people seem to be able to if not get the story from the movement, at least be able to make something up that pleases them.

We do our second show tonight and then tomorrow sail for Trogir.

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Vis and Hvar, Croatia

The island of Vis has been inhabited since the Stone Age. In 397BC, Greek settlers founded a colony there called Issa. In time, Vis became part of the Roman Empire, and eventually came under the control of Venice, which was its biggest architectural influence.  In the Second World War it became a military base for the partisan navy, during which time foreigners were not allowed within 300 metres until 1989. As a result, it has not been as spoiled by major tourist developments, and still profits from agriculture, fishing and viniculture, which has been part of its history for 2000 years. It is a stunning monument to the past, with the stone bases of Roman baths still present just outside of town, and sparkling clean azure Adriatic Sea water on all sides.

Our show there went well. As an international tourist destination, it afforded us the opportunity to collect much more by way of donations than in the more rural area of Ston, or the small town of Tivat. We only stayed for a short time in Vis, though I did squeeze in a nice hike to a tower on a hillside and a few town explorations.  We are getting faster at the break down and set up that are part of this whole experience (for which we often stay up very late), as well as the sailing, for which we often get up early, or even in the middle of the night.

Hvar, by contrast, has been encouraging tourism since the mid 19th century, and is now a popular holiday destination. The intense amount of people and tourist commercialism made it a challenging place to be. At 10:00 at night, the square was buzzing with at least 500 people, and it continued like that into the wee hours of the morning.  But if you walked a little ways in each direction it was possible to get beyond the tourist strip. We discovered a beautifully clean sea on all sides with the rocky access and urchins, and bathing tops optional for women, typical of all Croatian swim sites so far.

It is also a traditionally an agricultural and fishing island, and the town is famous for it’s lavender, honey, olive oil and wine.  There are vendor stalls with the same array of offerings in each one, Hvar lavender pouches, oil, and satchels. The nights were balmy, with a warm, soft breeze, like a hug with no timeline, and the cobblestone streets were filled with wafts of lavender.  With streets shut down to vehicle traffic, and all the buildings made of stone, it is picturesque and historic.

As with Vis, there are influences from many different eras. During its time of Viennese rule, it served as the government’s island centre, leaving behind an arsenal, town walls, and a government palace. During subsequent French rule, a theatre was built on top of the arsenal, and boasts the title of oldest open theatre, in operation since 1612. They also constructed a fort on top of the hill above the seaside town. When we visited, we got in for free, and explored the old prison, a museum displaying dishes from Middle Asia, recovered from shipwrecks, and the flag tower, which afforded us a windswept view of the beautiful port town below.

Though touristy, the town has a very interesting presentation, with uneven, narrow streets and wandering offshoots sloping up the hill towards the fortress. We pass a traditional bar that smells of leather and is like a low ceilinged cave, decorated with large keg barrels and timber floor. It offers only two types of wine: red or white, and a selection of tasty local delicacies such as cheese and prosciutto. Further up is a man in traditional dress: Capri style pants with sandals, and a while pirate dress shirt. He is slicing ham from a cured haunch, which is commonly seen in the markets, and tells us in response to our request to look around, “feel yourself like you are at home”. We laugh, and do.

Our first show is cancelled due to rain. Coming home from a restaurant situated halfway up the hill on the way to the fortress, there is rainwater rushing from all the horizontal streets and rooster tailing around the corners of the vertical streets, to run in rivers down the cobblestones. The sky just opens up, and pours a small sea on the land below of clear running water.

The next day our show goes fairly well, in spite of trepidation over the rockiness of this location and how it will affect the aerial components. It is always a little challenging to get back into the show after the mental break and hats change of sailing, and arriving at a new location. But doing the show again gives us a sense of jubilation at being in contact once more with our art. We are happy, and feel really connected to each other, and I have the feeling that the magic of co-creation and adventure are only just beginning in a way. I am grateful that we have another whole month and a bit for this to develop, and at the same time have the sense that this time will pass amazingly quickly. What a unique and special experience we are all sharing!

After the show, we continue to play music on the ship’s big sound system, dancing ecstatically in the little park across from where the boat is moored. We attract quite a little group of music appreciators, as the other music being blasted around the town late into the night is unoriginal techno. For a gorgeous suspension of time, we dance, revel, smile, laugh and cavort, the life of the town, until the closest club calls the police with a noise complaint and they come roughly to shut us down. “Do you have a license to throw a party in the park?” Rhetorical question?

The following night we do a make up show, which is stronger than the first in spite of having a smaller audience. The kids are our best customers, lining the stonewall in front of the ship with their legs kicking over the side, and staying raptly engaged right until the very end. Afterwards we pack up the show and prepare to sail the following morning. This process is becoming smoother and smoother.

I am told that this next location is much more rural, and may not be as open to receiving our show as the international audiences of Hvar and Vis. I am, however, willing to give it a fair shot and make up its own mind about us. After the incessant noise and commercialism of Hvar, a more rural setting will be a welcome contrast. At this point in the tour, the act of simply running through the show is an important one for the cast, as we are still developing our understanding of its message and impact, so as to better fulfill our roles in it.

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Ston, Croatia

Ston, Croatia is a lovely country town, and a welcome break from the construction zone of Porto Montenegro in Tivat. We motored for 12 hours north up the coast overnight, splitting up the journey into 4 hour watches (we are unable to sail, due to the scaffolding that supports the giant puppet heads in the show being a permanent structure on the starboard side of the ship, and would prevent us from tacking to the left).

We were all happy to leave Tivat.  After two month of being stationed there, and the intensity of the production period all leading up to this next step, it was our reward to sail away from that harbour!   We first went around the corner to Kotor, to gas up the boat, and sign out of Montenegro, then we were on our way by about 10pm.

My watch had the 2am-6am shift, a difficult one for the broken sleep, but magical to be awake on the boat as it moved through the night. The environment was stripped of the usual vibrant spectrum of colours offered by the sun, and presented itself as varying densities of blue/black velvet. Thick, viscous velvet slops against our hull as the boat slips through the water into the darkness. The mounds of velvet to our right represent the shore, its outline visible against the soft velvet of the sky, that stretch up to the gems of stars glowing sweetly above us.  Even the air seems velvety, as a slight mist hangs silverish in the night air.  This state is suspended for hours, as I sit with fellow watch mate at the bow position with a strong light and a radio to site for obstacles not visible from the stern. We listen to music, chat, and breathe as we glide forward under the stars.

For the next hour I take the job of recording our progress on the chart, and entering the engine stats in the log book. I enjoy this opportunity to practice my chart skills, and to visually track our journey on the map and calculate our speed of travel. Then, in the last hour I take my first turn at the helm.

As the sky begins to lighten to a soft, steely blue, and the water reflects the dawns first pinks, I am proudly standing at the wheel of the Amara Zee, steering her hulking body with all her valuable contents: people sleeping with all their energy and dreams wrapped up in her belly, the story and work of our show, it’s trappings packed neatly and tied to her decks. There is a learning curve with her responsiveness, which keeps me active at the wheel, sharpening my alertness to the approaching day, the unfolding dawn’s light, and the break of promise that comes with a new day.

We arrive to Ston in the late morning through a long fjord.  After tieing up, we find ourselves in a peaceful country location with lovely fresh wind sweeping down the valley of the fjord, and green hills rising up on either side.  In front of us, at the foot of steep mountain, is the tiny town of Ston.  True to its name, the buildings are all made out of stone, and blend into their environment like boulders in a field.  Above the town, a large “W” or stone ramparts ascend up the mountainside and around the corner to a turreted fortress on the top topped by a flying flag.  Further evidence of the recent upheaval in this area.

We quickly discover that Ston is a small town amongst many along this stretch of Croatian coast.  Accessible by car from the capital, Dubrovnik, which is about 2 hours to the south of here, it is visited by tourists on out trips from their hotels in the city.  There are lovely markets here, and we enjoy a festival with a lamb roast and live music.  We dance as if we know no one, and will never be here again.  It’s a liberating and joyful experience.

There is a beautiful beach around the corner from here, with gorgeous sparkling lapis coloured water that turns to an astounding teal colour in the shallows.  We bask under the shade of a pine tree, snorkel with the layers of suspended fish, like participants in a living mobile, and pick wild sage on the way back.

Our performance day (Sat. July 23) began with a lot of wind, and roused in us concern as to whether we would be able to run the show.  The scaffolding extends upwards about 15 feet above the deck, and there is an extensive aerial component to the show, not to mention and the scrim and backdrop which act like giant sails in the wind.  However, by the evening the winds have died down sufficiently for us to continue, and we present our third show to our first Croatian audience.

As with our former two shows, there are bunches of kids, attracted by the big puppet heads on the deck.  They arrive up to two hours early, and sit kicking and wriggling on the chairs, or talking in animated groups with they wait with the timeless and unpredictable patience of children.  In spite of a run through the day before, it is a new experience to shift into the content and specific demands of the show after the activities of sailing, setting up, and exploring a new location.  The show has a few glitches, but carries off well anyway.

The audience is very appreciative, clapping after each scene and staying engaged until the end.  Afterwards the performers carry hats through the audience to collect donations, and it is a unusual and pleasant experience to have contact with them directly after they have received the experience of the show and to feel their energy, even if words cannot be exchanged.

I find it an interesting approach to collect the money afterwards, once they have had a chance to see the show and feel its value to them, and for them to assess this value themselves reflected in their contribution.  This is different from paying an imposed value ahead of time that stands whether the show was enjoyed or not.  As usual, I see benefit in both versions.  We make about $150.00 Euro, comparable to what we made in Tivat.  Although this is not quite enough to cover expenses, I am optimistic that this will improve.

This afternoon we leave this sweet little town for our next location of Vis, the outermost island in a chain about a 15-17 hour slow motor north of here.  We will present our fourth performance there on Weds., July 27th.  I will try to update from there, pending internet connection.

All my best and fond thoughts to those of you at home.  Keep in touch,

Alisoun

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Opening Night!~ :0

Well, we’ve finally had our opening night and it was a wonderful feeling! After working for two months, long hours and everyone pulling as hard as they can from all different directions to bring it all together, the show is now up and running.

The last week happened so quickly; one day the entire production team moved their stuff out of the Shore Palace, the house where they had been living and working, and a mound of their belongings arrived on the pavement of the Port parking lot. In spite of this, production continued all day in the scorching heat.  Our scrim painter has blisters between her toes from working on the hot pavement.

The next morning the boat moved to its performance docking at the main dock downtown. Suddenly we are an art installation in full public view, an attraction and point of interest to all the cafes across the road, and receiving a new perspective on this little Balkan town.  This new location is less protected, and sideways to the oncoming waves. After two months of living on a boat, we are all finally having to find our sea legs.  The afternoon sunshine slants through the portholes from a different angle now, and light reflecting from the water dances on the ceiling of the communal salon.  We are here three days before our opening, and production continues.

Our dress rehearsal was a tense one.  The preparations were unfamiliar to everyone, as the salon got turned into our dressing room.  The show feels incredibly green.  Halfway through we got a real taste of the realities of performing on ship.  An incoming boat sets the ship rocking like mad, just before a big aerial section.  The Captain calls off the fly, and we begin to improvise.  As we adjust to this technical glitch, a whole section of the show gets inadvertently rewritten.  By later reports the rocking really leant itself to the content of the scene, but all kinds of little bits and pieces were thrown off kilter, the details of which we find out from each other later and laugh about.  Then the microphone of the lead female singers stops working!  It was a true trial by fire.  Everyone pulled through, but felt a little disappointed at our thwarted attempt to unveil the show for the first time.

The next day, a number of our bunch depart.  The reality of losing half of this spirited family in the next three days sets in, as the cast prepares to go on tour and the production crew’s work is done.   The day feels unsettled, in spite of being our first day off in a six day week of intensive work, as we try to capture the last bits of sweetness in the collective experience we have co-created.  Some more leave very early in the morning the next day, still more later that afternoon.  Each one an integral part of making this whole production happen, and to the group energy and experience that we have created.

Then came last night, our opening night.  I am glad that a handful of those still set to leave have decided to delay their departure in order to see this last show in Tivat.  Spreading the  leaving out has helped to cushion the blow somewhat, and allowed for personal connections with each person leaving.  Bitter sweet.

Then… finally… opening night is upon us!  The energy feels completely different this time, more settled.  The nerves of the dress rehearsal are gone, left behind in the dusts of “what if”.  The performance, though not seamless, feels extremely solid.  The host of kids who graced our chairs stayed engaged right until the very end and the public were very appreciative.  The composer, who wisely had not come to the dress, was overwhelmed with gratitude for the transformation the show leant his beautiful music, which made me very happy.  The ship stayed rock solid throughout the entire show, and we had no microphone malfunctions.  It was a total success!  And I was so glad that those who had stayed had been able to see the show in all its potential before they went along their way into the next chapter of their lives.  Yippee!

After the show, we began our teardown, in preparation for the sail to our new location tomorrow.  A huge job, but one that will likely get more and more efficient with practice.  We are all tired, but fully satisfied.  I am so happy to close this phase of creation with a positive and successful run of the show, and to leave Tivat with a gift after hosting us so graciously for so long.

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3rd post, week 5

Well, we are halfway through the production and mounting phase of this new show, “Command Performance”, getting ready to open on July 17th.  The performers have been working hard, and are exactly halfway through the piece in terms of choreography. The entire piece is set to music, and is sung like a musical/opera  The music is being masterfully created on a daily basis by a local composer Ivan, who is using software that offers samples of every instrument in the Philharmonic Orchestra to create songs that are not only unique one from the next in terms of style and instrumentation, but also has the specific meter of the words in the script. No small feat, especially for one whose first language is not English.

The faces of the giant puppets are halfway through creation. Three of the six have been made, and the other day were mounted on the scaffolding on the starboard side of the ship during a run through, so we could see their ominous presences and swivel movement of the faces in relation to the performers.   Yesterday the cast went up to the house, where the costume, mask and puppet production is taking place. It was so exciting to see the developments and designs for the first time!   We were shown the costume and mask design for each of our characters, and our individual colour schemes. The production area was a fascinating place to visit, with layers of creativity over time visible in each of the different rooms: sketches on the floor, funny lists of instructions specific to design and character body parts written on the walls and chalkboard, mask moulds of each of our faces in a row on a plank and suspended vertically on a string, a collection of custom nose pieces on the table intended to give structure to the cloth masks, shelves with coloured fabric organized in the rainbow spectrum lighting up a dark corner of the room, bits of material and mesh displaying design elements on the wall, a decorated light socket, drawings of the design of the different aspects of the characters in each room….  In the play, there are two different masks we will wear, one with a hard structure and accompanying costume details, the other one of cloth which we will wear the bulk of the performance, along with unitards of different colours.

The story of the play goes something like this. Our characters are a group of performers, drawn together by the fact that each is a “freak”, who has been genetically modified by the G6 to be perfect “super norms”. In the process of genetic modification, each of us has sacrificed a sense (sight, hearing) in order to receive an augmented version (visions, paranormal senses).   As a group, we are the proud creation of the G6, whose misguided ideals are in control of the world’s fate (sound familiar?), but somehow in the process of transformation, each of us has retained a small aspect of awareness of who we were before, and a plan for revolt begins, sparked by the arrival of the last character to join the group, a former conjoined twin who has been surgically separated from her brother, and then left alone when he was swallowed by an “orifice”, a portal to the G6 world.  As we strut and entertain the G6 at their private convention, we hatch a plan, and their greed and illusion of infallibility is their downfall, resulting in a Wizard of Oz-like revealing of the strange, small and vulnerable hybrid cyber beings that are behind the huge puppet faces. The people have overcome!! A happy ending….

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