Detour

I’ve been back in the states for just under a month now. It’s been weird getting back into the habits of Western culture, but I think I’m handling it alright. Last time I posted anything on here was right before I left Togo. I’ll go over a quick summary of what I did on my trip. Before I start I want to say this trip was done by my friend Jake and I, but throughout the whole trip we met so many awesome people everywhere we went even though I don’t mention them directly here. Seeing a bunch of places was cool, but meeting everyone is what made it an amazing experience.

August 3rd is when I officially ended my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer. That same day I crossed the border with Jake and Beau, two others who closed their service that day. I said bye to Togo and got in a bush taxi heading to Accra, and the taxi turned out to be a comfortable and I had lots of space! In Accra we met up with a few other new RPCVs and that night we decided to go all out, which meant going to KFC. In the US going to KFC means your poor or you don’t care about what you eat, but not here in Ghana. The chicken here is so good and the prices are for people whose families aren’t out in the villages.

The next day I went from Accra over to Cape Coast, such a nice beach town out west. It was Jake, Lyle, Christa and I. The town was home to a few colonial era towers and a castle. We did some exploring and a tour of the castle, which was used as a depot for housing slaves before they were shipped overseas. The castle was full of interesting, yet pretty sad, history. The whole town was really pleasant and a fun place to walk around.

Sorting the nets out in Cape Coast

After Cape Coast we headed further west to an eco-friendly (I swear I’m not a hippie) beach resort called the Green Turtle. Two days of chilling on the sand and eating great food. I know the owner was about to sell the place, so I don’t know if it is still there, but if it is you should go visit it!

Next our party split. Lyle and Christa continued on to travel west along the African coast, and Jake and I headed back to Accra to catch a flight to the UAE. Our flight had a nine hour layover in Cairo, Egypt, and we decided to jump in a taxi and take a tour of the city. It was around 1am, but the place was still alive. We had some really nice street food, crossed the Nile and saw burnt out buildings from the Arab Spring. After dealing with airport security asking for bribes to let us back in the airport (don’t worry, we didn’t pay) we made it back to in time to jump on our connecting flight straight to Dubai.

Snap shot of Cairo

Dubai is a place I need to go back to when I have money. They take every awesome touristy thing you can think of and then make it ten times better. While we were there we checked out the world’s largest mall, went up the world’s tallest building, skied indoors and did a sweet sky diving simulation. We also checked out a mosque where they actually let non-Muslims in to get an idea about Islam and strolled through a museum to learn how Dubai became and stayed a prominent location for business and trade. We also were there during Ramadan, so a lot of time was spent walking around hungry with all restaurants closed until sun down.

Stay classy Dubai

After spending a good chunk of our readjustment allowance, we took a flight over to Hanoi, Vietnam. This country has amazing street food. We spent our first day walking around the capital and getting use to crossing streets full of hundreds of motorcycles and scooters flying by. The best thing to do is to just walk and don’t stop. They’ll drive around you. Accidents mostly happen when the pedestrian stops and goes backwards. So even though it looks like a death trap you just got to man up and walk through this sea full of horns and exhaust.

We tried taking a three day trip to Halong Bay, but a typhoon came through and turned it into only a day and a half. Beautiful mountains jutting out of the water, but the water itself was disgusting. We had a great time jumping off the boat, but I had to call it a day after having too many unknown floating objects (UFOs) wash up against me.

A floating village out in Halong Bay

Back on land we took a 26 hour bus ride from Hanoi, Vietnam to Lang Prabang, Laos. I feel all my bus taxi rides in Togo had been in preparation for this trip. This ride covered everything that should happen during a long bus ride: loud obnoxious music you don’t understand, uncomfortable seating, bus getting stuck in the mud, rip off bus stops and a not-so-bad border crossing.

The bus actually had to be pulled through this mud patch

Lang Prabang was a great introduction to Laos, which is my favorite country (tied with Cameroon). I kept feeling like I was in Key West, just with a lot more Buddhist temples around. The place we stayed was down a quaint, narrow street lined with houses and palm trees. It was humid, and even though there were no beaches there was a river that flowed through the town. When you go there check out a place called Utopia, a restaurant/bar right on the river.

Next stop was Vang Vieng. This is the place to go if you want to experience MTV Spring Break in the middle of a small country in South-East Asia. It also has good rock climbing. Such a weird place, but I had fun.

After two days of that we went down to the capital, Vientiane. One thing I realized on this trip, which I just never thought about before, is that communist countries aren’t like the dreary places I always learned about from movies. Vientiane was such a mellow, fun city with so many interesting people. We spent one evening bowling and another evening strolling through a park watching joggers, bicyclists and kids on skateboards doing their thing. They even have daily giant organized public dance sessions with tons of people who come out for it. Why is this not happening here in America!

Why not America?

A trip down south took us to a few small towns to check out caves. The best cave had a river that went 7km through it. So we were in a boat floating through darkness with the only light coming from our head lamps. It was like being on a whole other world! I now know I like exploring caves.

Really Laos, you are so nice!

After a couple more days hitting up random towns in Laos we crossed over into Vietnam and took a bus to Hue. This is where we bought our motorcycles. It was so much easier than we thought it would be. We tried so hard in Laos to find bikes for sale, but as a foreigner without any national or an organization to spot you, it was next to impossible. In Hue we found two bikes on our first day and they came with registration. All we did was ask the girl behind the desk of our hostel, she called someone she knew, and that afternoon we were test driving two Honda WINs.

After Hue we drove up to the Demilitarized Zone and explored a tunnel system set up in Van Minh during the Vietnam War. They set up their own clinics, schools and living spaces in these tunnels. Crazy how people lived in such conditions.

Our next stop was Da Nang, and to get there we went through this awesome mountain pass. It was right next to the beach, so the view was incredible. At times we were above the clouds. This pass was also featured on Top Gear.

Da Nang was ridiculously crowded. Riding our bikes through there was like being an ant trying to circulate through the colony. A couple days later we headed down to Hoi An. This place has an amazing old town which needs to walked around at night to fully appreciate. Next we traveled to the west side of Vietnam to ride down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This took us through some towns off the beaten track, and over more mountainous terrain. I love riding a motorcycle on the swerving roads around mountains.

On the way to Da Lat

One place we hit up before heading back to the east side was Da Lat. This place reminded me of San Francisco with its fog and town houses stacked up on hills. From there we took a trip to Na Trang. The trip over was through a crazy high altitude mountain pass. It was so steep and foggy. There were times when I could barely see 20 yards in front of me. I would just kick it in neutral, glide down and keep honking the horn.

Na Trang is a beach town with a water park (yes, with water slides) and an unexpected high amount of Russian tourism. The water park was fun; just don’t do any rides where you don’t use a tube. These slides will hurt if you slide down just yourself. They also blast Russian techo beats throughout the park.

Mui Ne was another beach town a bit more south. We ATVed through sand dunes! The old lady running the place we were staying happened to of lived in the same part San Jose where I grew up. She raised her kids there and then retired back here in Vietnam. It was a cool coincidence and we got to reminisce about things like Ida Price and the Prune Yard.

Next was Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City. We spent a couple days here trying to find buyers for our bikes. We bought them for $175 and sold them for $150, so it is like we only really paid $25 to ride them for three weeks. Riding through Vietnam is one of the best things I’ve ever done.

We ended up going to the Hard Rock and seeing an American bluegrass band perform. There were three Americans in our group and we were the only ones who enjoyed the music. I guess bluegrass is an acquired taste.

We also visited the War Museum which was a major guilt trip. My first minute on the grounds a guy hobbles up to me and tells me his hands and feet were blown off after the war from an unexploded ordinance. He pointed his arm stump towards me and asked where I was from. I said America, looking past him as I really didn’t want to focus in on this uncomfortable situation. He seemed a bit upset when he asked if I wanted to but postcards from him, but I said I didn’t have the money on me.

Vietnam was weird because there were times where I would be wondering what this person thinks of me as an American. Along with the anti-US propaganda, which was through out many museums, we also met many people who had supported the US and still saw it as South Vietnam still occupied by the North. I ran into a Vietnamese marine who fought for the South and US forces when he was 18. He had nothing but good things to say, and he reminisced on what he considered the good old days. It seems though, that this sort of stuff only came up with older people and when I was at museums. I think everyone else my age doesn’t really relate to this because for them it was generations ago.

That was the end of Vietnam. We took a bus over to Cambodia and stopped in Phnom Penh. We went to the infamous killing fields and I left in disbelief. It is just mind blowing what happened to this country and how the international community failed big time with handling this. Go ahead and google Kampuchea or Khmer Rouge if you want to know more about this genocide.

A temple full of skulls from of people who died under the Khmer Rouge, yup for real.

Next was Siem Reap. This place has an awesome night life. One part of town is called Bar Street and it’s full of great places to meet people, dance and play pool. While there we rented bikes and rode out to Angkor Wat and all the other ancient temple and city ruins. It took us two days to check everything out, but we could have easily spent half a week there. Most of these ruins were over 900 years old, so it is so cool knowing people back then had the capacity to put these structures together. I was slightly disappointed how touristy it was, but at least we got to see where they filmed Tomb Raider!

Our trip in Cambodia was cut short because we wanted to make it to the Full Moon party on the Thai Island of Koh Pha Ngan. This is a giant beach party event that happens once a month and, from the name, coincides with the full moon. It was really fun, but I was glad to get out of that area after four days because it was so exhausting. We went during low traveler season, so there were only around 15,000 people there. Normally they get around 40,000 people during peak seasons.

Next stop was an island called Koh Samui. I spent my birthday relaxing on a quiet beach with a group of friends eating hamburgers at a seafood restaurant.

Back on the mainland we headed north to Chiang Mai. This is the only place I visited where I thought I could actually live here. It is like the Boulder, Colorado of South East Asia. This is an outdoor adventure haven, plus it has amazing culture. Their night markets were amazing. While there I rock climbed, cuddled up with some tigers, checked out so many temples and went to the movies (maybe you don’t think this last one is too exciting but I’ve been living without cinemas for the last two years). You can also go white water rafting, zip lining, ride elephants and so much more!

Hey there sleeping tiger, we’re cool right?… please don’t eat me.

While up north we also visited another town called Chiang Dao. This was a small town full of caves, temples and a beautiful waterfall.

A bus ride down south took us to Bangkok. The two days there were fun. We rode a boat up the Chao Phraya River and spent the day walking on the outskirts of the royal palace, visiting the giant reclining Buddha and getting lost in China town. Night life was fun and I had the best Indian food there too.

Shanghai Pudong International Airport

The final stretch of our trip was a flight from Bangkok to JFK with a 16 hour overnight layover in Shanghai, China. We thought about going out of the airport to explore the city, but the lady at the tourism office didn’t seem to convincing on going out to find stuff to do at night. Plus at this point we were so close to being home that we found ways to entertain ourselves in the airport. After tiring myself out, by throwing rolled up balls of torn up newspaper into a trashcan, I was able to fall asleep on a bench to kill time.

Made it to JFK, said bye to Jake and got on another flight down to Tampa.

I left Tampa on June 3rd 2010 and I returned on October 13th 2012. I’ve had two wild years away where I did so many things and learned so much. I know I loved my family, friends and the US before I left, but two years away has given me a much greater appreciation than ever before. I’m glad to be back!

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3 Responses to Detour

  1. Will Franco says:

    That is quite a detour! Loving the addition of the pictures, they really bring the post to life!

  2. ekua says:

    i loved your travelogue, Martin! hope you’re enjoying your reunion w/ your family. after all your adventures, can any one place hold you for long? :-)
    ciao for now,
    ekua

  3. MikeM says:

    Martin! Wow, I can’t believe you’re back and gone again already. I just saw you last night and you’ve barely changed at all, at lease outwardly. I know you’r all kinds of different on the inside now. I hope you had a great time in the peace corps and that you’re glad you did it! I’m glad I followed your posts the whole way through!! Can’t wait to go on the AT!

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