Over the past two weeks I have joined the other social media lemmings –we prefer the term “early adopters”– in wheeling and dealing our way into the possession of a Google+ invite and with it, exclusive fresh tracks access to the latest social network to hit the interwebs. And while I have not gone as far as throwing a match over my shoulder onto a gasoline soaked Facebook page, there has been a collectively vocalized sense of relief that finally there is a viable alternative, and one that does things differently, arguably better. The burdens and strains of managing a single online identity under the gaze of friends, co-workers, ex-girlfriends and inlaws in one grand sweeping gesture becomes a little much and it would seem that this is the main reason why we are gladly leaving one social network community so readily for another: we can once again return our lives to their previously fractured and compartmentalized states. Continue Reading…
There are people wandering along the side of the freeway.
This is my first impression upon our arrival in Beijing. It strikes a deep set horror in me. Caught in the headlights, choked on the edge of the 10 lanes that spew out an air that you wear like another layer of skin, they look displaced, lost, left behind.
My god, I think to myself, 1.3 billion is too many; China’s population is supersaturated; the levee has broken; people are spilling out everywhere. Continue Reading…
Climbing into the back of the pickup truck on the dusty street, a trio of tribes women surround us wearing clothes of bright yellows, magentas and cyans, and black hats decorated with jingling tokens and coins. Their smiles are stained red with bettlenut juice and they thrust toward me their handfuls of bracelets and scarves all the while whispering under their breath the mantra on their true intent: �Opium�.o..p..i..u..m..�
We were leaving Muang Xing in the north of Laos, thirteen miles south of the Chinese border. This was one of the main transit hubs of the area, if you could call it that: a dirt road strip of guesthouses amidst foggy rice fields and bamboo shacks and distant mountains. It was the Wild West transplanted, one of the many remote points on the South East Asian map where old traditions and the hapless anarchy of the backpacker set collide.
The day began at 7 a.m., as my girlfriend Jane and I watched dozens of other backpackers pile and pack themselves into trucks and head off to Luang Nam Tha while we sat alone in a bus going the opposite direction to Xiang Kok. And sat� And sat� And sat…
You see, there were two ways of getting out of this region. The first consisted of a long and lazy canoe ride down to Luang Prabang and then a long and bumpy bus ride into Thailand. The second option, the one that we chose to take, was a three-hour journey to the border by speed boat. At the time I couldn�t understand why no one else had chosen this seemingly better route.
Only around nine o’clock, did it begin filling with passengers — all of them locals — but the arrival of the first two or three was suddenly like opening the floodgates and soon we were packed tight amidst both persons and produce — rice, bags of sugar, pots and pans and anything else that could be stowed aboard. But still, this was not enough for the driver who made endless false starts driving from one end of town to the other, picking up anyone and anything that could fill the remaining space; and more so to fill his pockets.
Then at last we were on our way! And yet it was only to the gas station; our cracker jack driver had not seen it fit in the two hours we had sat idle to take the opportunity to fill up the tanks. It was stop and start in much the same manner for the rest of our trip on the dusty road to Xiang Kok; winding through the lush valleys, the door constantly swinging open and shut to let off a couple of women outside of a small thatched village, to pick up a tribesman at the side of the road, a pair of soldiers, boys barely into their teens with huge machine guns slouched over their shoulders. Of the dust and the heat of the sun through the window, the former proved the lesser of two evils and I rode most of the way with my head out the window, swallowing pounds of the stirred up air while the sun nevertheless laid down its relentless pounding.
We arrived in Xiang Kok; the mighty brown current of the Mekong in our midst –Myanmar and its mysteries on its other bank — once again we would harness it as our ride. There were five of us heading down river; five of us prepared to suspend all sane and rational notions and hand our lives over to the speed boat drivers of the Mekong.
Now these speedboats turned out to be little more than glorified long tails with behemoth V8 engines strapped to their backs. We were loaded into sitting areas no bigger than the width of our two back packs so that my knees came up to touch my chin and then with a touch of the ominous, we were all given lifejackets and motorcycle helmets. It was at this moment that I began to think that we were quite mad; that in order to avoid a twelve hour bus journey of unimaginable discomfort, we had instead opted to pay twice as much money for a three hour journey into death and destruction on the Mekong.
With that, we set off, skimming along the surface at 80km an hour. We raced on between shards of rock that would have cut us in two without a thought or apology, their kith and kin less than a meter under the surface causing the river to coalesce in endless raging whirlpools that we bounced and battered our way through. Larger boats flying the flags of Laos, Myanmar and China chortled past, leaving us to negotiate their wakes. The great and twisted metal hull of one less fortunate vessel could be seen wrapped around the crag. And a little further up river, Jane turned to me with eyes gone wild and screamed over the roar of the engine: “A body!! A body!!”
It had apparently been floating in its watery grave for some time as it was without clothes and bloated and severely discolored. To what end this poor soul had come to meet his maker was now beyond our knowing but it helped to confirm our present sense of imminent peril and we held the side of the boat�s flimsy frame with a tighter though perhaps less assuring grip.
After two hours, we arrived at Ban Muam a tiny thatched village in the middle of nowhere and we were told we had to pay for our ticket and change boats for the last third of the journey.
Now there is something a little unsettling about paying for a boat journey — especially one that has you invoking the entire canon of saints and spirits of the celestial realms — before you have kissed the solid ground at the journey�s end. A card game was in full swing in the ticket office as we paid our fare, and it felt as though our lives were at stake with each deal. Our new driver would certainly be the one who had lost the most money and we could only hope that his luck on the river would be considerably better than his luck on the betting room floor.
Our fears were somewhat abated as the last leg of the journey turned out to be on far calmer waters, with more legroom in the boat and fewer obstacles in the river. We even managed a laugh in the heart of the Golden Triangle when we passed a candy-striped tourist boat full of forty or more sightseers from one of the overpriced casino resorts in the area, out for a day of excitement and adventure on the Mekong, who all turned to look at us as we flew by with an expression that reflected all the madness and incredulity that our journey had thus far entailed — as though asking ” from what strange regions did these speed obsessed lunatics come to churn up the waters and shatter our own illusion of hand held danger?” If only they knew.
A day later, after ten more hours of transit — of border crossings and a long cramped bus ride, we arrived in Chiang Mai, the Thai center of the North. The vast simplicity of Laos was replaced by the flash of neon lights and the buzz of motorcycles and the all too familiar smells of a big Thai city. But we were alive and we were safe with the certainty that somewhere just over the horizon there would be a new adventure awaiting us.