Sunday, April 21, 2019

Blasting through Bangkok

The Global Scavenger Hunt is moving from Myanmar to Abu Dhabi today via Bangkok. But the thing is, there’s an 8 hour gap between arrival and departure in Bangkok. Today’s game requires leaving the airport. We have 5 1/2 hours to go scavenging. 

Right now, we are in the passport control line for access into the international departure waiting area. It’s 35 minutes until boarding.  We did all the scavenges but one. We rode 4 types of transportation: sky train, city train, tuktuk and ferry. We did a photo safari in the flower market. (And got some really nice photos). Besides being surrounded by intense gorgeous colors (well, mostly orange marigolds and red roses), we loved the sweet perfume following us down the market aisles. It did a pretty good job of covering up aromas. It is hot! And we are sweaty and smelly. 

We visited two wats, or temples. Wat Arun is across the river, requiring a quick ferry ride to get there. The wat’s pyramid shape and its tall profile are the reasons it rules its neighborhood. Okay, it’s beautiful and historical too.  Breeze and shade on the ferry: really good. 

We asked questions of a bunch of people, probably as intended icebreakers to get us talking to strangers. Works like a charm. 

And...yes! The immigration line sped up. We had just enough time before boarding to do the scavenge we had not yet gotten to. A foot massage. Got our feet washed and scrubbed. Perfect ending to a crazy hectic layover. Sure beats sitting around the airport.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Balloon Bummer. Trying Buddhism

Sally and I seated ourselves quietly in the back row, each of us on a thin cushion. As we bent our knees to cross our legs, we were careful not to allow our feet to face the large Buddha in the front of the room. The monk at the podium chanted through a microphone, his nasal sIng-song voice filling the room with a soothing rhythm.  The women in the 20 or so rows in front of us responded by chanting or by shaking their heads. All of the women wore brown slacks, white blouses and brown shoulder sashes.  Sally and I wore our black stinky travel pants and quick dry shirts.  It wasn’t just our clothing that made us stand out.  
We were observers, not participants in this week-long meditation retreat at the Moe Goet Meditation Center in New Bagan, Myanmar. Besides, we are white girls. We had arrived at 7:00 a.m. for the two hour scavenge of visiting a meditation center and seeking instruction from a Zen master. 

We got a lucky break when we showed up unannounced. An older man, Ye, the leader, greeted us at the door and had a few minutes to explain before the all-Burmese session began.  Although raised in Burma, he had lived in Boston briefly and then returned to Myanmar. He gave us ai private crash course in Buddhism so that we would have some idea of what we would be back-benching. 

That was helpful. As I sat on the floor for two hours, periodically rearranging my creaky knees and thinking about the tenets of Buddhism, I looked at the chart in the front of the room. The circle in the middle is the place you put things that are bothering you. 

There was no question in my mind about how To fill that circle. The thing is, I thought I would be riding a hot air balloon ride over the Bagan that very morning. 

But, it turned out, It is the wrong season for ballooning.. So, i took a page from Buddah’s book. I put the balloon ride into the Buddhist central circle. 

I intend to leave it there.  I probably won’t go back to Bagan. And I probably won’t ride in a balloon there, either. Ohmmmm....

Oh, and that two hours in the meditation center was a great balm for the sting of having my balloon popped. 

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Cash Only to Fly in Myanmar

Our Global Scavenger Hunt group arrived in Yangon, the capital of Myanmar. Yay! It’s my birthday today and Myanmar is high on my bucket list. What a thrill. 
I have always wanted to see the temples of Bagan. The travel photos of hot air balloons floating over an expanse of pointy pagoda tops bathed in the sun’s warm red glow sold me on Bagan long ago. I can’t wait to board a hot air balloon before dawn and see the ancient buildings for myself. 
We will spend 4 nights in Myanmar, checked in to the Sule Shangri La Hotel. There are scavenges to do in the capital city of Yangon, as well as in Bagan and other locations. 
Flying is the best way to get to the other places. Road travel is dangerous, wIth an average annual rate of 13 fatalities daily. 
Flights are relatively cheap. They range around $60 to $120 or so. The best way to book a flight is to go directly to the airport and buy a ticket at the counter. Like a bus. The hitch is that it’s cash only. Sally and I have a stash of dollars but had assumed that most of our expenses on the Global Scavenger Hunt could be covered by credit cards. And when we need cash, we go to ATMs. True until now. The airline counter agent quoted the price in U.S. dollars. We bought our plane tickets using dollars. 
After an overnight stay, we returned to the airport to buy another set of tickets. This time, after hearing the price in U.S. dollars, we also asked for the quote in Kyats, the local currency. Answer:188,000.  
Sally and I split the tasks. I worked with the counter agent on paperwork while Sally got the cash in Kyats. She exited airport security into the airport lobby where there were three ATMs. She tried all of them. All were empty and had not been replenished yet, due to a long holiday weekend. She went downstairs and found a couple more ATMs. The first one gave her cash, but not enough. Finally, she succeeded in topping off the required amount at another machine. She ran back upstairs through security and joined me just as the passport information input was wrapping up (yes, it took a stunning amount of time to transcribe a couple of data items). Sally plunked down the one inch wad of Kyats on the counter. The airline agent handed us our plane tickets. 
It took as long to buy the tickets as it did to take the flight. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Hurrying Through Ho (Chi Minh City)

The Global Scavenger Hunt got into full swing on Monday, April 15.  We arrived at the Majestic Hotel in the afternoon.  Situated into the Beverly Hills-equivalent district, the hotel is a vestige of French colonial rule.  After a short break to check in and get organized, we ten teams met in the lobby.  It is marble but more importantly than anything, it is well air conditioned and cool. Bill and Pamela Chalmers, the trip organizers, announced the rules and distributed the book of scavenges. Given how important that book is, it almost deserves the religious reverence of capitalization: The Book Of Scavenges. A new one is distributed for each leg.

The Ho Chi Minh Book contains a list of 36 things to do during the day-and-a-half until we report back at 8:30 p.m. the next night. The goal is to earn as many points as possible. (A more elaborate “par” scoring system kicks in to assign weights to each country score, depending on difficulty.  More on that later). There are more scavenges than can possibly be done. Each scavenge is an activity and each is assigned a number of points.  Although it’s tempting to grab the book, run outside and start scavenging, the smart move is to plot a plan. 

Our first destination was an English bookstore to buy a guidebook and a map. Before leaving the bookstore, we clumped the scavenges geographically and roughed out where to go when. One major, major rule of the contest is that you cannot use your cell phone to figure out the scavenges. No GPS. No google maps.  No googling to find out what things mean or where they are.  No calling ahead to find out hours or make a reservation.  The idea is to ask locals and engage culturally.  

Another rule is that there are mandatory scavenges. As in, you must stop to eat. This leg, or country, required completing three food scavenges from a list of 13. Some are simple, like have a bowl of pho (soup) from anywhere. Others specify a restaurant and maybe a specific item on the menu.  For our food scavenges, we did the pho thing because it was quick and easy. We ate banh mi (hoagie-type sandwich and if you don’t know what it is, eat one; it’s delicious) with a very local beer, bia hoi, that was 
poured out of a plastic bag. We also ate at Cuc Gach Quan, an upscale vegetarian restaurant that was what I dream about when I think of how amazing Vietnamese food can be (like their lemon crumble crusty tofu). 

There are also mandatory experience scavenges. This leg, there were two required. One of the ones we did was karaoke.  In a swanky, pimped-out private room in a studio with ear splitting bass. In the late afternoon, all sweaty and stinky after running around in sneakers with backpacks, in the same establishment where girls in long sheaths and guys in casino-croupier outfits serve drinks and fire up the song lists. Sally did BeyoncĂ©’s “”All the Single Ladies,” hopping around the dance moves, swinging the microphone.  I thought she was terrific.  So did the waitress peeking into the window of our studio. I did Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”.  You’ll have to ask Sally how I did. But I don’t think anyone peeked in the window while I did mine. 

Our strategy was to use the second day, because it was a full day, for travel to the Mekong to do the scavenges there. Because of the travel time time (3.5 hours each way), those scavenges bore huge numbers of points and are called “Bonus” scavenges.  The trip to Can Tho to see the floating market was 250 points, and to Ben Tre was 200 points, compared to, say locating the bonsai garden tucked away in a corner of the city’s zoo for 30 points. Despite having to walk out of the hotel at 5:00 a.m., it was worth every hour of lost sleep to have gotten ourselves out of the city and immersed in the Mekong region. 

While I n the city, we scoured Ben Thanh central market for items such as cobra and eating mangosteen, rambutan and dragon fruit. We wasted an hour and a half getting lost with a taxi and then on foot, trying to find the Emerald Jade pagoda. Once we realized the correct name and found it, we arrived after the bars to the gate were. locked. We charaded to the security guard who was in plain view, as was the altar, to make an offering on our behalf (a crunchy granola bar). He took it from my hand like receiving something though prison bars and we watched him walk toward the altar. We decided not to try to count the points on this indirect method of making an offer through an agent. 

Hot and tired, we headed excitedly to the next scavenge of having a foot massage. Man, was that enjoyable!

We are now on our way to Myanmar for four nights. This is on my bucket list. A bucket list should probably shrink but mine keeps growing.  

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Morning Memo from Mekong River

We are riding on a wooden boat with a relatively quiet motor. The mild breeze kicking up from the river and the boat’s gentle rocking are restful. We just finished drinking cocoanut milk through straws punched into coconuts with the tops lopped off.  Our boat has just pulled away from the landing in Ben Tre, Vietnam. We have completed the last leg of a long scavenge that required us to leave the hotel at 5:00 this morning. We took a taxi ride of 3.5 hours to Can Tho to see the Cai Rang morning floating market. 

Our driver spoke zero English and relied sporadically (but not quite often enough in our opinions) on calling someone on his cell phone for directions. We almost didn’t get to the market on time because he waited a long time stuck going the wrong way in a torrent of oncoming moped traffic.  With the aid of his life line, he managed to find the unobvious parking lot for access to the river boat. 

We boarded the wooden river boat just before 8:30 and merged into the busy waterway.  Farmers sell produce to buyers who float up alongside them.  We saw watermelons being handed out from little windows in the hull and pineapples being tossed in the air from one vessel to another. 

A boat selling produce is recognizable by the stick rising into the air from its bow.  The pole is a sign of what’s for sale. The farmer ties a sample on and dangles it in the air for visibility, sort of like a billboard. Sometimes with items like tomatoes, they are suspended in a small net sack. As we wove our way among the sellers’ boats, watermelons, pumpkins, onions, carrots, turnips and tomatoes swayed above the crowd of boats. 

The boats are primitive, some appearing to be handmade, with motors cobbled together. Some farmers live on their boats with their families. We saw hammocks; sometimes with little kids playing in them. An old woman squatted over a large pot, wringing clothes she lifted from the green river water. We watched all of this through the morning sun sparkling on the water. 

It was a good thing we arrived before 9:00, because the boats started to pull away at once, like a signal had been given that it was time to go.  I was so grateful to have been able to have had this extraordinary experience. 

Sunday, April 14, 2019

First Day of Scavenging, Take Two

First Day of Scavenging, Take Two
My last post about the day of scavenging in Vancouver didn’t do justice. Here is the schedule of the day that Sally and I organized for ourselves, scavenging around Vancouver, collecting points. 
  1. All teams met with Bill and Pamela Chalmers at 9:00 a.m. where we received our books of scavenges —- the list of activities, each with a point value. For Vancouver only, just to get us acclimated, we can use our smart phones for maps and research. Sally and I sat in the hotel for a few minutes and planned our strategy. We walked out of the hotel at 10:00 and could scavenge until  8:00 p.m., when we had to meet in the hotel lobby.
  2. From our hotel, the Fairmont Vancouver on Georgia Street, we walked down to the waterfront and boarded the Seabus for about a 15 minute ride to Lonsdale Quay. At the ferry station, we changed onto a bus toward Grouse Mountain. 
  3. We got off at the Capilano Suspension Bridge and walked across the shaky span over a deep chasm.
  4. We stopped in the coffee shop and asked three of the young women working there,”Who is the most famous Vancouverite”. They giggled a lot and settled on Seth Rogan.
  5. We caught the Grouse Mountain bus again and continued on to the base. At that point, it was raining hard. We bought tram tickets and boarded the aerial tram to the summit. On the way up, the rain changed to snow.(gorgeous by the way)
  6. We rented snowshoes in the rental shop, walked around for a few minutes, fell, and handed them back in. 
  7. We descended by aerial tram and bus.  At the Seabus terminal we stopped for ethnic food. We chose a Little Tokyo shop for miso and sushi with black rice. 
  8. After the Seabus returned us to downtown Vancouver, we watched the Fly Over Canada movie, a Disneyesque large screen experience from a large chair that tilts and wiggles. 
  9. We took a taxi to Wreck Beach, a remote beach near the campus of University of British Columbia.  You have to descend a gazillion steps to get there. Worse yet, you have to climb back up. At the end of the day my step tracker repaired 35 flights of steps and 10 miles. The scavenge was to do as the locals do on this nudist beach. Sally volunteered! Even though a couple of people milled around on the beach, we found a cove where nobody could see us. In the misty rain, she posed for a picture with nothing but her scarf flying like a flag from her neck. I’m so impressed! And because Vancouver doesn’t count in the scoring, nobody else gets to see the photo.
  10. The taxi had waited for us on that isolated road and took us to the Museum of Anthropology.
  11. Next was the Botanical Gardens for two scavenges. The Cherry Blossom Festival offered lots of demonstrations, food and music to enjoy. Second was a hedge maze.  It was not easy, but we got out in 7 minutes. 
  12. We took a bus back to central Vancouver and found the world’s oldest steam powered clock.
  13. We found the $999 boots for sale
  14. At Chambar, we did a mandatory food scavenge, eating mussels and local beer.
  15. We stopped in a liquor store and compared prices on a product whose price we know at home (Gray Goose, thank you google)
  16. Sally composed the haiku 

Notes from a Sardine Can

am on a twelve hour flight. In economy. I was assigned to a dreaded four-pack in the center of the cabin. My assigned seat was on the aisle. That’s where I like to be so that I can stretch my legs out. And I don’t have to bother anyone when I want to get up. 
When I make my own plane reservations, I work the seat selection, trying for exit rows and longer leg room. But on the Global Scavenger Hunt, I didn’t get to choose my seat and I opted out of paying the upcharge for business class.
I’m not gonna lie. It was pretty miserable.  The leg room was so short that my knee caps pressed against the seat in front of me.  But shortly after takeoff, Sally strolled through the cabin and reported on an empty window seat in the exit row. The open area. With legroom as big as my bathroom at home. Nirvana. 
I had to pay a $200 supplement.  Gladly! I stretched my legs out all the way, put on the eyeshade and neck turtle and drifted off.
Sally stayed in the back but her legs are shorter and she got my old seat to spread into. 
We should land in Taipei within the hour and catch a connection to Saigon.