Matthew's News and Gossip: 12/01/2002 - 01/01/2003
Matthew's News and Gossip
A man with no talent, but armed with a digital camera, can waste lots of bandwidth
Saturday, December 28, 2002
Matthew's end of year missive 2003
This is my end of year letter. I put it here in case you missed the email!
Hi. I hope you are having a great end to 2002
First, let me apologize if I've disappeared off your radar screens, if you were sitting there thinking, "where is that Matthew Holt fellow", I have indeed disappeared more or less off the map. I'm writing my end of year message from Laos, a small-ish country locked in between Thailand and Vietnam, about which the best known fact is that it had more bombs per person dropped on it than any other country in the world, and spent most of the 1960s and 1970s with armies from 4 other countries and the CIA's private drug-smuggling air force joining in its civil war. Now Laos looks like an offshoot of Thailand. Everyone by the border has a brand new scooter or 4WD extended cab pick-up, things costs as much as they do in Thailand, and the one-party state (still run by the revolutionary Pathet Lao) looks east to Vietnam for political inspiration, while everyone else is looking over the Mekong to Thailand in search of an extra Baht or two.
Before Laos I have been to several countries, mostly seeing the sites and lying on the beach, as well as trying to find out what makes the world tick from a non-Anglo-American perspective. If you want to know more about my trip, including seeing some of the hundreds of photos that I've put up (which may feature you if you were there!), please take a look further down in my "Blog". Briefly, I spent most of September in India, October in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and southern Thailand (on the beach), November in Bangkok, Cambodia and Vietnam, escaping to Laos just before Christmas. I spent Christmas with my friends Lish and Ann in Van Vieng, and am awaiting the arrival of Gabrielle, who will suffer through the New Year with me. I'm on my way to Australia and New Zealand before heading home some time in March or April. So expect to hear from me looking for a bed or a job (depending on your location) between now and then.
But this end of year message is not just about me, it's still supposed to be about the problems of the wider world and my perhaps trivial suggestions for what we can do to make them better. In some way having seen the grinding poverty of people in urban India and rural Cambodia and Laos, I'm feeling more helpless about making a difference this year. But I've also seen Vietnam getting on with rebuilding itself from total war, and seen Malaysia and Thailand showing some real progress in modernizing and becoming (perhaps too) westernized, and I've had conversations with people who couldn't begin to imagine what life is like in San Francisco or London, but still have an opinion about David Beckham's haircut. So even though the news on the TV promises crisis and war, there is hope than things can get better and we can help.
So again I've chosen three little things that you can do. As I wrote about this message last year, feel free to read it, forward it, delete it or hopefully act on it. In general I'm not trying to be too controversial, although some people are going to disagree with my stance on drug prohibition, but if one person who has been thinking about doing something this end of year/holiday season reads this and sends some money or writes an email, its been worth my time writing this. Please let me know any comments (good or bad) you have and be assured that I welcome any response.
The Projects, Charities and Issues
1) I still think that NetAid remains a great clearinghouse for charities for the world's poorest people. In the past two years I've featured clean drinking water in Honduras and education for girls in very poor families (Burkina Faso--last year we were a small part of raising over $38,000). They are focusing on more education this year. I'm donating to help send some two dozen orphaned girls infected with HIV in Zambia to primary and secondary school, but there are also opportunities to help people in Afghanistan, South Africa, India, Peru, Colombia and many others. For more information click on Netaid.org/projects; you will see a list of countries with their relevant projects on the right of the page.
2) Of course, being me, most of my journey has been spent with various hedonists out to enjoy themselves. But I've also met a few very interesting people on my travels who have slightly more on their minds. Pete and Fiona Molloy (www.londontosydney.com) are a young-ish British couple driving a Landrover from London to Sydney. Their blog makes mine look very tame . I met them early in the morning by the Taj Mahal in Spetember. They are raising money for the UK-based charity Care International which works in many areas delivering emergency relief and working to develop basic elements of self-sustainability. Here is a lit of Care International's projects in India . To donate to Care click here . In Vietnam (and also Cambodia and Laos) it's clear that many people are getting ahead and working hard to get up the economic ladder towards a state of near poverty that although 95% of you reading this would think was unacceptable, is in fact a decent aspiration--electricity 24/7, plumbing, a new scooter. However, the gap between rural and urban parts of the country is very large, and there are many desperately poor people in both places living on well under $1 a day. I bought several beggars dinner, and I've given dozens of pens to lots of children, but probably giving to an organzation like the Saigon Children's Charity is a much better way to help.
3) As most of you know I've been opposing the "War on Drugs" for a long time, and have been trying to help raise interest and awareness of alternatives to the insane position taken by the US government. It's clear to anyone without a stake in the system that the current policy of blanket prohibition does nothing to reduce drug use and costs individuals and taxpayers greatly. It, of course, also supplies jobs for prison officers, policeman and criminals. Sadly in 2002 things have been going backwards in the US. However, they have not elsewhere. Next year Canada is joing Britain and most of Europe in the effective decriminalization of marijuana (responsible for over 75% of all drug arrests), and the establishment of safe injection rooms for heroin addicts. Sadly, however, the antics of John Ashcroft and his fellow arch-conservatives at the DEA have been beyond conscience this year, culminating in the raiding and closing of virtually all medical marujiana dispensaries in the US, including the one in Santa Cruz, California. In that particular raid a quadraplegic woman was handcuffed to the bed for failing to respond to an order to stand-up! I believe the only way to respond to these prohibitionists is to publicize their actions. So this year I'm asking you to subscribe (Yes it's free!) to http://www.drcnet.org, which publishes a comprehensive newsletter about the Drug War. You can of course give DRCnet money (as I do), but probably better to read an issue or two (they come every Friday) and try to figure out why the US government is spending $380 of YOUR money fighting a war on drugs that causes more misery than any amount of drug adicition, and -- by the way -- increases the level of drug use worldwide.
So there you have it, a quick laundry list of charities and causes that I think are important enough to contribute money or electrons and stamps to.
Before I go just a quick update to last years missive: There is still no ruling from the Canadians on the fate of drug war refugee Renee Bojee, who was arrested for the "crime" of drawing illustrations of marujiana plants and faces ten years in jail for the same. She did though get married and have a baby this year. Other medical marujiana refugees such as Steve Kubby are also now in Canada. It'll be very interesting to see if the Canadians manage to essentially turna blind eye to Cannabis production and consumption at home and send back Americans to massive prison terms for less than the same offences.
The Higher Education Act is still in force, meaning that no young person with any kind of drug offence on their record can get a loan for college education. If you go to http://www.raiseyourvoice.org you can join the sensible majority opposing this terrible legislation. Finally some minor good news, both the Clearwater projects and the Burkina Fasso education project have reached full funding from NetAid. If you gave, thanks. If you gave elsewhere thanks too, and how about letting your friends know?
With my best wishes for a very happy, prosperous and safe 2003
I have now got the photos from Sapa up as well as more in the Hanoi album. I have also put up the photos from Southern Laos after much fussing from the Germans' with the sense of humour, Uli and Maikka, but you have to go to the relevant secion of the blog (dated 1/4/03) to see them. Plus the shots of Ventiene are up too.
Stories to follow...am a bit tired after a too-happy christmas dinner last night....
So to bring you up to date....this missive covers my time in Tam Coc, Hanoi (twice) Halong Bay, Sapa and getting to Vientiene in Laos, where I'm writing this. After leaving Dong Hoi I was awakended on the sleeper train by it stopping. I asked the guard where we were as Vietnamese stations don't bother with niceties like signs. "Nimh Binh" he said. That's me, I thought, and rushed off to get my bags, but before I got to the door the train rolled off. "Stop" I shouted, the guard sprinted off up the train to see the driver and they ended up stopping the train and depositing me on a bank 500 metres up the track from the station!
After a quick brekkie at the Queen Minihotel and meeting classy guide Thuong who was one of the best people I met in Vietnam, I rented a bicycle for a very pleasant ride down to the Tam Coc river, known as Halong Bay on the Rice fields. Of course being the sucker I am, I was intercepted by this charming young girl who told me that she would take me in the back way to the river avoiding the massive fees. Of course she instead wanted me to pay a bunch more to look at this cave, and then wanted me to pay even more to go to another one, all in her very dodgy and very uncomfortable tiny boat....I eventually twigged that this was a scam and explained to her in my best French that if she wanted to take my money she had to tell me the truth. I got out of the boat, went and got my bike from her house and left asking her to follow me. She stopped being so charming at the that point, but she wasn't brave enough to come face the music at the official boat stop to Tam Coc. That trip though was quite beautiful. Here, here and here (including me!) are some of the photos, which include some of the very dodgy and amusing English "couple" Wayne and Vanessa (check out that hair!) who joined me on the boat.
The next morning, apparently unrelated to the rice wine Thuong had foisted on me the night before, my foot hurt, and it hurt alot for the next week or so. This was a pisser as it meant that I couldnt really plan on any significant trekking in the Sapa region or really getting too active in Halong Bay, the other great beauty spot in north Vietnam. I spent some time in Hanoi, including going to see Uncle Ho just back from his refresher in Moscow (no photos of him dead but this is his Mausoleum and here's me pretending to be lying in state). He looked exactly like Colonel Sanders in the window of the KFC on El Camino in Palo Alto, although he glowed a little more. Allegedly he lived simply in this house and probably resented being turned into a God-cult by his followers, but then Lenin probably used to buy his mother flowers...
The other fun thing I did in Hanoi, where I stayed in a nice hotel in the Old Quarter for $10 a night after some vicious bargaining, was to go see the water puppets. This is a great hoakey traditional show with Vietnamese music and puppets appearing out of the water (the puppeteers are knee deep in water hidden behind a screen) and charging around. I forgot to take the camera inside, but here are what the puppets look like. Now imagine the dragon with fireworks in his mouth breathing smoke in a dark theatre and you're part of the way there. Here are the rest of the Hanoi shots I've now added a bunch more which I took after returning from Sapa, mostly of the opera House and early morning work-outs (I'd taken the night train in, no I hadn't gotten up specially!!).
After a day or two in Hanoi (including seeing Chelsea stuff Everton, Wayne Rooney et al) I headed off to Halong Bay with the gang who had been in Dalat earlier (Heidi, Vicki, Geordie Chris, Ronnie, Lynn, plus Ian and Kiwi Angus [with Chris here]). This was not one of the warmer trips. Halong Bay has some lovely karst cliffs but was moving fast into winter, and although we had a nice trip on the Bay and saw a beautiful cave (Sang Sot or Surprising Cave) with many fine features, and a rock that looked like a willy and hence had lots of stupid photos taken of it, it was a brisk afternoon. We arrived on Cat Ba island allegedly to do a long hike. I knew I wouldn't make it, and when the rest of the gang started playing drinking "games" and ended up showing up the locals in the very strange Star disco, it became clear no one else would either! Instead Ian, Chris and I took a very, very cold motorbike ride, and we spent one more drunken evening showing how karaoke is NOT an art form, before we headed on a very rainy morning back to Hanoi. The full Halong Bay set is here. I will be back one day with better weather, a junk with a folded sail, and unlimited supplies of beautiful women or booze or perhaps both!
What followed that night was the end of an era. I arranged my escape for the next day, but not before meeting some more random people on the boat (like Rowan the soon to be New Yorker with the big arse, another Israeli called Roni and this French girl standing a little too close to Angus) and getting together with all of them at a Jazz club. We ended up at the Acopalypse Now bar, where the bartender had a good go at breaking my nose because I wouldn't let him shortchange me. Discretion would have been the better part of valour there, and I snuck off quietly into the night leaving the gang behind! Anyway, if you were there on "Big Wednesday" you might be interested in these photos, although I have no idea who took most of them!
All that was left in Vietnam was to go up to the hill country of Sapa. There I spent several very foggy days getting harrassed by little girls and old Women from the Hmong and Red Zao tribes wanting me to buy their various blankets! It NEVER cleared up enough to see the mountains properly or to see the rice terraces in all their glory, butI'll say a little more about Sapa when I get the photos up> Now it's midnight in Vientiene, and I've just had dinner with the lovely Lisa (vague friend of Scott Summit's) and her parents from Austria and must make preparations to go south to Pax Se (bottom right of this map) tommorow and to meet Lish, Anne and Gabbers here next week!
So I'm leaving Vietnam tommorow. I've spent the last few days in Sapa which is in the Tonkin Alps in far northwest, and have been completely fog bound. I'll have photos up from here soon enough. However for those of you waiting (hi Dad!) I have now got all my sets up. These include the Tam Coc river, Halong Bay, Hanoi, and a certain "Big Wednesday" night out in Hanoi (you know who you are and you owe me $4 and a new nose!). All the other blogs (including the last two) have all the Vietnam photos up and the story, so you'll have to read down. Please email me if you have problems getting to the photos, but I think I've figured out how you can get to them all via the full sets or just the ones I've linked to without signing your life away!
I'll write more about the last part of northern Vietnam in a little while, but the overall word is COLD!
Dalat via Nha Trang via Hoi An via Hue to Dong Hoi -- I've spent most of this month thinking of the Eddie Murphy skit at the start of Trading Places, when he's pretending to be a blind, crippled Vietnam Vet, and two cops ask him where he was stationed. He says (something like!) "Dan Ang, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Du Nang, Ru Tang, yeah man I was at all of them places...", then the cops kick of his blind man's specs, and he says "It's a miracle! I can see!" Then they lift him up, and he goes "It's a miracle! I can walk!" Anyway, I've been to all of those places now, and it's a miracle that I can still see and walk, after 2 days of non stop scootering! Today has been my most remote day in Vietnam. I haven't seen a single white (or black) person or met anyone who can speak something that even passes for English (One guy at the hotel can speak some French).
So when you left me last I was abseiling down a waterfall in Dalat (top right of this map), in fact a bunch of them, on a very fun tour led by Mr Thiep from Hardy Dalat adventures. On the tour with me --and loving it! -- were Heidi from Canada (the buddy of Vicky of previous Matthew blog fame); a random American called Ben who was a rock climbing instructor; the bald, young, and disgusting -- but funny -- geordie (that means he's from Newcastle if you're a Yank)- Chris (in this photo with Heidi); and the glamourous but deadly former Israeli army officer Roni. Dutchman Arnie came along too but had a rather rough time! I loved it -- especially the abseil straight down the waterfall....I think I may have found my calling (althought at that waterfall my battery died so the photos in the waterfall are of Chris not of me!)!
After a quiet night out at the Saigon bar, I spent the next day trying to get my fake walkman fixed (the solution is apparently to buy a new set of batteries for EVERY CD I play!), and then wondered around Dalat being guided by Kim around the rather fun "Crazy House" owned by Ho's sidekick's daughter (hence the ability to get around planning regulations), meeting the rather sensible "crazy monk" and seeing the incredibly dull and ugly summer villa of the last emperor Bo Dai. Not surpisingly the Emperor took all the millions the French gave him as a bribe to be their puppet and left at Ho Chi Minh's "request" in 1945 for the life of a playboy in Monaco, where he happily spent the next 40 years gambling and whoring!
All the Dalat photos (including the abseiling) are here
Everyone else had pissed off to Nha Trang the day before, and leaving Dalat wasn't a bad idea, but Nha Trang is a hell hole. It's supposed to be the St Tropez of Vietnam, but it's more like Clacton-on-Sea designed by Soviet "architects". The only thing to do was to get drunk, and by the time I arrived everyone else had and appeared to stay that way. I would have joined them more but I was engaged in babysitting duties for the first night (i.e I was talking to a really drunk Engish girl when she passed the point of no return, and rather than leave her to die as I should have done, I decided to take her to the only place I knew -- my hotel -- and let her decorate most of it with her insides before she eventually woke up saying "where am I? Who are you? Who am I?"). The second day I went to a very dissapointing Cham tower and an even more dissapointing mud bath --cold, thin, and not muddy. I reccomend you go to Golden Haven in the Napa valley instead. It costs $100 more, but you get what you pay for! Here are the rest from Nha Trang
Up the coast on the night train, populated by some wierd Dutch air stewardesses and Lisa a Canadian who leads tours for Tucan Travel in Central America. The sleeper is fine other than the conductor waking you up at 6am and then blaring awful Vietnamese disco-bop on the PA until told to cease and desist by a very angry Englishman (Yes, it was me!). After a little haggling about 7 of us got a bus from Da Nang to Hoi An.
Hoi An is a very touristy original Vietnamese city that the Viet Minh, Viet Cong, French AND Americans neglected to blow off the map, unlike the rest of central Vietnam. With luck like that, what would you do? You too would become a tailor. There are 300 tailors shops in Hoi An. 100 great resturants and on sunny days a beautiful beach 2 Kms away. I made friends with lots of tailors, conincidentally mostly gorgeous young women. Some things, fitted some didn't, but at $25 for a suit and $6 for a handmade fitted shirt, who's complaining! I'll soon be going into business importing wholesale from the place (and if I won't Stephanie Wong will!). I'm particularly keen to become the American agent of Jade, who was as tough a cookie as I met; her mother and sisters (Jade is in the orange scarf) all looked lovely in their scarves -- let me know if you like them!. There were scads of tourists I knew and some new faces. Here's a gaggle of girls (Lisa, Lynn, Heidi, Jo, Heidi, & Vicki) getting a massage after dinner from the lovely Yan. Somehow after going to dinner with 7 women, I ended up drinking with 4 men.......
Eventually I stripped myself away from Hoi An and went up the coast past Da Nang to Hue. And what a coast, this one rivals the Big Sur coast-line in California, and staggeringly hasn't become a major tourist resort....yet. But with beaches like this it will soon. 3 hours later we were in Hue, ancient capital of Vietnam. After a night at the aptly named DMZ Bar, I knocked around the market, full of very tired Vietnamese sales girls, and went to the Citadel with 2 old (i.e. nearly my age) Canadian women called Brenda (on right) and Mary Lou. The Citadel was mostly blown up in the 1968 Tet offensive during which the VietCong held Hue for several days and killed 3,000 US sympathisers, before the Americans took it back street by street. The Citadel has a few minorly impressive buildings that have been restored, such as the Main Palace, some Imperial gowns, and the To Tem Temple. We spent ages dawdling here, and longer having lunch at the deaf mute Mr Than's well-promoted resturant. However, at 4.15pm we decided to rush off to see Minh Mang's Tomb 12 Kms away. After a wild fast moto ride, followed by a confusing 1 minute cross-river ferry that cost as much as the 2 hour moto ride each(!), we eventually got there to discover that it had closed early (according to the Lonely Planet)! After lots of shouting and trying to breach the walls, we never made it inside! But it looked nice from the outside, despite the corrugated-iron shed effect!
The full coast road set is here The full Hue set is here
In order to get away from me, Brenda and Maureen decided to go to Laos. Inn order to get away from the ubiquitous tourist mini-bus tours of the DMZ, I decided to take a brief train ride north to Dong Ha. After much haggling I procured a motorbike and rode up the nice coast line to the Vin Mhoc tunnels. In these tunnels (right next to the beach) the villagers of Vin Mhoc lived for 4 years, saw movies, had 17 babies (between them, not each!) in this maternity "ward" and avoided the awful fate of their village. Here's the full set including the nice coast road there.
Taking a moto is much nicer than being on the bus, so I decided to do it again the next day. This time I took a train to Dong Hoi,where they have never seen a tourist and have only Soviet-style hotels--which at $15 a night are $8 MORE than anywhere else I've stayed and architecturally compare unfavorably to a 1960s Skermasdale leisure centre. The place is dire! The next day I hired an extremely crappy fake Honda belonging to the crappy hotel, and rode up 40kms to the Phong Nha caverns, stopping for lunch with some very drunk Vietnamese (who claimed that they were going back to work later!). $6 procured what turned out to be a private tour of the cave on a large boat rowed by a husband and wife team. Pretty impressive cave, though Carlsbad Caverns it's not. Still a great day outinto the heart of rural rice fields ,wierd mountains and pig transportation. More to come when I get to the north..... on the night train tonight, I hope!