Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Time Traveling

Since most of my time in China was reserved for the cities of Beijing and Shanghai, I knew I wanted to get a slice of rural life. So I picked the small village of Hongcun to visit that is well preserved and, well, lost in time. Of course its idyllic setting made it a favorite of art students who were here in droves painting the scenery.

I stayed in a home, a traditional courtyard home, that also serves as a tea house for the visiting art students. This guy’s house was listed in my Lonely Planet guide, but he only discovered that when I showed him the book. He doesn’t seem to get too many westerners. This was my view from the courtyard balcony.

One thing I noticed is what looked like whole legs of pork hanging from people’s homes, or maybe they were butchers. Just sitting there hanging outside…I think I will stick to tofu.

The art students gave the village a youthful vibrant vibe.

But it didn’t really detract from the authenticity of the village life.

I found what seemed to be the tallest structure in the village, a very old viewing tower within one of the old stately homes, from which I could see the rooftops of the village.

The village is surrounded by a small lake with a picturesque bridge.

And on the other side, a small river where kids would play with the bamboo rafts.

Which were just there for public use it seemed.

But, not being content to just see the village that everyone was drawn to, I decided to take a walk outside into the surrounding countryside, where I could walk among the rice paddies.

And see first hand fields being tilled using water buffalo, and a way of life that has not yet completely disappeared from China.

And then the next day I got on a bus and arrived here, Shanghai, the future is waiting…

Huang Shan – Islands In The Sky

No this is not a scene out of Avatar, and no I did not die and go to heaven. This is Huang Shan, the fabled mountain of Chinese artists and poets. A truly incredible place.

It’s really not a mountain with one defined peak, but rather a multitude of granite peaks and deep gorges with vegetation clinging to what seems like sheer rock. I always thought those images one sees on Chinese scroll paintings were fantastical imaginings, but I assure you they are real landscapes.

I was fortunate to get up the mountain the day I arrived, after an overnight train ride from Beijing, and a four hour bus to the town at the base of the mountain. I got up there just before sunset.

Accommodation at the top was pricey, but worth it. Having left my full pack at a place in the base town, my goal the next day was simply to walk myself down amongst the misty peaks via the Western Steps. It was truly an otherworldly landscape, accentuated by the ever changing mist and clouds.

At one moment something is exposed.

And the next it is partially or completely hidden.

The “trails” were really a series of steps of stone between peaks with much up and down climbing. I found myself on this harrowing series of steps going down deep into a gorge, with the steps built from stone completely protruding from the sheer vertical granite mountainsides, and very short railings.

At some point I started to wonder if this could really be the common way down. Then I came across this.

This is where my sense of safety kicked in and I decided I was not going down that! I soon found out I was on a different trail that was not for the faint of heart, not that I ever considered myself faint of heart. So I had to do a considerable amount of climbing to get back to where I made my wrong turn, I wasn‘t at the Western Steps but the Western Gorge Trail. All the way down, and all the way back up, but it was worth it!

But I can’t really complain, not after seeing this guy.

Up near the top there are all these locks on the railings left by young couples over the years to show their commitment to each other, along with the ever present posing for pictures.

It’s too bad I do not have my lovely lady with me to share all of this, but if I did, we surely would have put one of these up there.

Beijing – Yesterday and Today

Although this is one big sprawling city of 16 million (all of New York State has but 17 million) it has felt like three distinct cities. The oldest is the huge forbidden city at the center. This is the ancient imperial “city” where the dynastic rulers would rarely venture from.

This is a huge complex of walls, huge ceremonial gates, and at the core, the heart of the imperial court, where the rulers and their minions would reside.

Nothing but the best for China royalty.

As you can imagine, the place is overrun with tourists, the majority of them Chinese. Oh, and did I mention it’s quite dusty here, and windy.

This guy puts John Lennon to shame.

And just outside the ancient fortress, the army folks were doing drills. The police and soldiers were everywhere in and around the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.

Another aspect of old Beijing is the Great Wall, which snakes over the northern fringes of the municipality one to four hours drive out of town. Unfortunately, all this work apparently went for naught, as the wall was never an effective barrier to the Mongols and such, let alone Coke and McDonalds.

I hiked a four hour stretch between Jinshanling and Simnatai. When you get far enough away from the end points the mass of tourists thin out, as there is quite a bit of climbing up and down involved. But there are always local vendors trying to sell water, trinkets and even beer.

The views from the various watch towers were great.

Back in town, the second part of Beijing I noticed was the Hutong, the old alleyway neighborhoods of courtyard homes and small shops.

Everywhere, the bikes were ubiquitous. And the sense of a grey dustiness was unavoidable.

These neighborhoods seemed frozen in time, but yet were very active with life. Here a group of men watch a Chinese Chess game.

As the city continues to develop and modernize, these old neighborhoods are being bulldozed over, and although some have been deemed historic and will be preserved, many more will succumb to the future that is modern China.

Which of course is the third side of the city one can’t help to notice.

Things are being done here on a scale and at a pace like nowhere else in the world. Here is the innovative CCTV building.

Top name architects from around the world are being brought in to design cutting edge buildings that become instant landmarks. Here the National Theater of Performing Arts, which is surrounded by water, has a glass ceilinged entry way that leads into the structure.

And then I just happened upon this place, called appropriately “The Place”. A block long rooftop video screen, perched three or more stories up on pillars and lined by high end shops, restaurants, and hotels.

Oh yea, the Olympics were here as well. The swimming was done here in the “Water Cube.”

And of course, across the street, the landmark “Birds Nest” National Stadium.

Ok, now it’s time for a break from the city as I head south for the mountains around Huang Shan. But before I go, what do you think?  How would Gretchen look in this?

The Great Leap Forward

After 48 hours of flying, and 6 hours of sleep, I woke up and took a great leap out of bed and found myself here.

My hostel is in a what is called a Hutong. They are the modest dusty neighborhoods of old Beijing, and they are disappearing fast to the rapid development that is turning old Beijing into a new powerhouse city of Asia.

But the dusty ghosts of the past live on, for now.

But who comes to Beijing to see old dusty neighborhoods? Probably not these folks.

No, they come here to see the imperial history and to see this guy.

One can not get into the Forbidden City of the old Chinese dynasties without passing under Chairman Mao. But apparently the watchful eyes of Mao aren’t enough, as there are police or army everywhere it seems. But they are still short on Fashion Police.

That is certainly around Tiananmen Square. Synonymous in the West with the brutal crackdown on a peaceful pro democracy protest in 1989, it is always under the watchful eye of the government. You must go through security just to get there.

And of course they seem to like rules here, including No FaceBook, No Twitter, and no WordPress, etc. Well this American says no way, and that’s why you’re hopefully reading this now. But the government can’t seem to stop people from superstitiously putting their money in water fountains.

And this long day comes to a close.

But not before a trip to the night market…

Are those skewered starfish? Surely those are not scorpions? OMG, they are. And think of the lucky one who gets to eat one of those delicious tarantulas. No, I did not try one, and no I won’t.

48 Hours And A Wall To Climb

Well I am here in China! Unfortunately the WordPress site is blocked by big brother here (along with Facebook – what are they afraid the people will find out about some of my friend’s latest trip to the bathroom?).

So I am having to climb the great firewall to do this post, so there will be fewer pictures and I can’t control the formatting for the time being.

As you can (hopefully) see I spent quite a lot of time on airplanes just to get here the cheap way.

The shore of Lake Erie near Detroit

Sunrise over the South Pacific as we approach Australia

Finally arriving in Sydney (Oh wait-I'm only halfway there!)

So six airports and 48 hours later I arrived seeming like a zombie. No I was a zombie.

I am all better now.

Time to explore Beijing.

Home is Where the Heart is

And it’s harder to leave a home when it’s not empty. And since my sweet fiancée Gretchen moved in a couple months back, my home has become our home, and it has grown brighter, warmer, and cozier – and harder to leave. This is definitely where my heart resides!

But it is time to once again to venture from the loving nest and explore the world, camera in hand.

Actually this all started with Gretchen getting the honor of being invited to Brisbane, Australia to speak and teach at a conference there. Of course I knew I had to go along. And hey, with China just 10 hours north of there, why not go there as well? And then there is New Zealand laying out there nearby in the ocean…

So a one week conference has turned into a 6 week trip for me (China, Australia, New Zealand), and a three week trip for Gretchen in Australia.

First stop for me, Beijing. Too keep costs down, I had to do it the hard way. So on May 6th I leave for Beijing connecting via Detroit (2 hours), Los Angeles (4 hours), Sydney (15 Hours), Guangzhou (8 hours) and finally Beijing (2 hours). You do the math. Oh yea, and 8 hours of layovers…

This will be the worst stretch of flying in my experience, it better be worth it.

So as long as the Great Firewall of China does not impede my ability to post (I understand they block this site there – but I have a plan) look for updates soon from the Middle Kingdom or maybe even the floor of an airport somewhere.

And Queen Bee, I will see you in Australia!

I miss you already.

From Down Home to Beijing – Obama Gives NC Made Go Board to Chinese President Hu

Our local master go player and master carpenter, Frank Salantire, was tapped by the Obama administration to make a go board from special Hawaiian koa wood, which was presented to President Hu of China this week.

This all was done in less than a week. Frank was asked to do this because the president of the American Go Association remembered what a fine job he did making a unique go board in the shape of North Carolina for our 2006 Go congress.

And as you can see, it made the news in China.

An American Moment Like No Other


He has been called a socialist, elite, too black, not black enough, inexperienced, presumptuous, a long shot, un-American, even a terrorist. But today he is simply called Mr. President.

Unbelievable as it sounds, Barack Hussein Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. And of course, I had to be there. And we traveled in style. Change has not only come to America, but I got a new car.


Once again America can lead by example. Many people in other countries, such as England and France, can not imagine an African minority in their country ever being elected to the highest office.

Just as significant, the most reasoned, balanced, intelligent and thoughtful person was the one to assume office. Democracy somehow worked this time! This is a clear break from the past of partisan, ideologically and theologically based ignorance and fear that has been the norm for too long. Sanity, reason and real compassion has returned to the White House along with the first African American president.

This is why some two million people (the largest crowd ever in DC) converged on the Mall in Washington, DC and some 2 billion people around the world watched with a collective sigh of relief.

And it began with a concert and ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial. A fitting place for the first African American President (also a tall lanky man from Illinois) and the same spot where Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech. A dream indeed fulfilled!


There were many great stars and musicians there including Tom Hanks, Denzil Washington, Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Stevie Wonder and of course the band to play right before Obama spoke – U2. True to form Bono reminded the then President-elect and the world, “This is not just an American dream, it’s a European dream, an African dream, an Israeli dream – and a Palestinian dream” You tell ’em Bono!




Contrary to his socialist label, it seemed that the Obama presidency has spawned a plethora of entrepreneurs selling everything Obama throughout DC.



Even Obama at the beach buttons.


And “Yes We Can” cookies at Union Station.



The night before, the excitement was in the air as the whole mall was lit up in anticipation.



Tuesday morning people were everywhere. They came to witness history, such a diverse crowd of happy if not cold people – all 2 million of them!



They came from all over the country and the world, the rich and powerful and meek and humble. With so many people it was amazing to hear later that there had been no arrests the whole day.


And then the moment was upon us – “I Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear…”.


And then we cheered, hollered, cried and hugged loved ones and total strangers. It was great to be there with Gretchen and my good friend Jeff.


And a little while another thing to cheer about – the exit of Bush! Good bye and good riddance!


And at the White House, somebody new was moving in as the sea gulls celebrated and the bands prepared for the parade.


They lined the streets and building tops to see the new President and the beginning of a new era. We were fortunate to get a spot right behind the White House across from the Presidential viewing stand. They told us it couldn’t be done (be at the swearing in and see the parade) and we replied – Yes We Can!


Lots of pomp and circumstance preceded the presidential procession.



And of course Joe and Dr. Jill Biden.


Ladies and gentlemen the First Lady and the President of the United States of America, Barack and Michele Obama!


Yes, that is the Commander in Chief.




Godspeed Mr. President.

Burning Man – A Mirage in the Desert, or Was This Real?

Welcome home!

Black Rock City: If you’ve been there you know…

What happens in BRC - stays on the blog.

If you’ve heard of Burning man before, maybe you’re curious. If you’ve never heard of it, tread carefully on this blog post, it may induce nightmares, or you may find yourself in the desert next year questioning what you believe.

Warning: For those of you who are put off by all out freedom of expression, public nudity, or sexual innuendo, you may want to spend your time on the Internet taking in something a little more pious, like a Sarah Palin or Osama bin Laden speech, since some of this post is probably rated R.

The Man - waiting to burn.

The Man - at the center of it all.

Burning man has been happening for the past 20 years or so. It started as an impulsive act of self expression on a Beach in San Francisco and has grown to a city of 50,000 (called Black Rock City) that springs to life for a week every summer in the Nevada desert – or playa as it is called. And then it quietly disappears for the rest of the year, leaving no trace. Pack it in, pack it out.

Black Rock City (2007) from space (courtesy of Google Earth).

Just a week before Burning Man started, my girlfriend Gretchen and I decided to go and become residents of Black Rock City. We had both heard about it for years and were curious. Where else can you go to see bizarre, beautiful, elaborate, and often flame breathing art in the middle of the desert, stroll a “city” of 50,000 in your birthday suit, ride a boat car across the desert, contemplate the meaning of it all at a temple that will burn at week’s end. Where else can you have a ride on a 30 foot tall teeter totter, enjoy a drink or a dance in a sand storm, and a get full body power wash in lieu of a proper shower? Exactly, so off to Nevada we went.

A few thousand topless cyclists in the desert dust.

It’s an experiment in “radical self expression, radical inclusion, and radical self reliance” among other things. What does that mean? Well it’s hard to know unless you go. We felt right at home.

The morning walk to center camp. Who's that amazon in the blue panties?

People from all walks of life and of all ages can be found at Burning Man. The one thing they will have in common is that they’ll accept you as you are, which creates an incredible atmosphere of freedom…

That's quite a handful!

That's quite a handful!

To wear very strange costumes, and eye-ware…

Those are called IGAAKS -

Those are called IGAAKS - not suitable for the office.

…and clothes not suitable for the office.

Aren't we cute in our matching purple skirts?

And of course, nothing at all, which I did on many occasions.

Just out for a stroll

Just out for a stroll on the playa.

As you can see, couples come in all varieties on the playa, and are free to express their affection. Which of course is a perfect manifestation of “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as well as the theme for this year – The American Dream.

An American dream.

Maybe you’ve heard of the organization Critical Mass, where bicycle riders take over the streets en masse to make a point about transportation. Well at Burning Man a few thousand woman participated in the annual Critical Tits ride to make a point about their right to go topless. And why not? If boys can go topless, why not girls as well? Besides it’s hot!

I want to ride my bycycle...

I want to ride my bicycle...

Burning Man is first and foremost the people who make it happen.

But of course with the people come all kinds all kinds of strange and unlikely art installations to be found on the playa, spread out over a vast distance. Some whimsical…

The Flaming Lotus Girls

Some critical.

No time for TV at Burning Man

No time for TV at Burning Man

And many suitable for climbing!

That's not a Hummer - it's a Bummer!

That's not a Hummer but rather a Bummer!

Never a dull moment.

And nothing is too big for the open desert. The logistics of getting all of this here, two hours north of Reno along a small two lane road that becomes dirt after the last town, becomes an incredible undertaking.

Some installations are made out of metal.

And some are made of wood, like this multi-level temple that is built every year, used as a sacred space for contemplation and such and then set on fire on Sunday night.

The temple Basura Sagrada is just ashes now.

Black Rock City is spread out over 7 square miles, so many people ride bikes from place to place. Another alternative to walking is getting a ride on one of the many “art cars” or mutant vehicles. Black Rock City even has a DMV – Department of Mutant Vehicles. No other motorized vehicles are allowed to drive around.

No room on this mutant.

These cars come in all shapes and sizes, from artfully redecorated golf carts to elaborately modified trucks with multi levels. Day and night they slowly move (5 MPH) across the open playa or down the city streets, usually playing music and full of riders.

Is that a phone driving by a two story milk carton?

You just never know what you will find wandering around here. When visiting the temple we happened upon a wedding taking place at sunset. The temple is pretty far out from the city center. You can see the man in the distance, he is at the center of the whole circle that outlines the city.

Wedding with Tetras blocks in the background.

And at dusk the Lamplighters come out to hang gas lamps along the major avenues of the city. As night falls, the fire rises, and things only get more active…and strange.

The Lamplighters bring light up 12:00.

The heat dissipates and people start moving…

Jumping for joy at sunset.

And always the Mutant vehicles lumbering on the playa, sometimes blowing fire.

The fire breathing snail car in our neighborhood.

And the night doesn’t end…

Playing with fire!

Until well into the next day. So sleep wasn’t always so easy.

Who is that with the well placed camera bag?

We found the desert environment not nearly as bad as the warnings implied. Sure it was hot by day in the sun, but so pleasantly dry. We just had to drink plenty of water. And the sand/dust storms that rolled through most of Saturday provided a little more drama, as if that was needed.

Gretchen braving the elements!

But the whiteouts were fun, much better than those sub-zero whiteouts of snow in Buffalo. And we got to use our goggles and masks we brought just for this kind of thing. Radical self reliance in action!

Portrait in stereo in a fellow burner's goggles.

Of course riding a bike in the whiteout may not be such a bright idea.

Burning man heaven.

We were worried that with the intense dust storms that went on into Saturday evening that the burn would be canceled. We had to leave the next morning and it would be a shame to miss the culmination of all this.

The gladiator/dance dome, quiet before dark.

But fortunately the dust cleared, tens of thousands gathered around the man, and the burn commenced a couple hours behind schedule. His arms were lifted, and the pyrotechnics began!

Hugs explosions engulfed the whole structure in a ball of flames, and it slowly burned until the man fell and it all collapsed into a large bonfire.

It's sad to see him burn.

At that point, the crowd was allowed to approach the large fire, encircling it counter-clockwise, firemen at the ready.

Some people had things they just had to burn.

A Bushfire.

Some found it a spiritual experience.


We just basked in the glow of the intense heat and bizarre revelry, virgins no more.

Gretchen with her headlamp on.

The man burns in 357 days…

Downriver and Upbeat – The Mekong Delta of Vietnam – Part 2

This is the second and final part of my Mekong Delta story, continuing from the last post. Again, I apologize for the dearth of pictures.

The Vietnamese are very early risers. Things start buzzing between 5 and 6, and the market is usually the center of this activity in Vinh Long. A stroll along the narrow path between the stalls is a smorgasbord for the senses. Everything and anything one could imagine eating is here for sale, and in any state as well, from just born to freshly cooked. I see all kinds of fish, piled and stacked in tubs, some still flipping. Creatures lifted from the sea are present in all shapes and forms. There is a woman chasing down one of her frogs that has managed to escape from its bondage and hop away. I encounter a bunch of baby pigs in a metal crate poking their noses at me. Meat of all kinds is cut right here and hangs or is laid out on tables, the vendors shooing away flies. And then there are chickens. Chickens abound in every phase of life from the egg to the butchers blade. There are boxes and containers filled with yellow baby chicks, “boiled eggs “ (eggs with a little chicken in it that is eaten scooped out with a spoon), chickens tied up or in bamboo crates, and chickens being slaughtered, boiled and plucked. It all happens out in the open every morning. The sights, smells and sounds, though not for the timid, make for an entertaining and fascinating stroll. Fortunately, I am a vegetarian and I settle for fruit, biscuits and some noodles.

Pushing my luck I get back on the motorbike and head for Cantho, the unofficial capital of the Mekong delta. Along the way, something catches my eye. Telling myself it is better to stop and investigate than to pass and regret, I turn around and park the bike in front of a house. A dirt pathway leads to the front of the bamboo and wood house. A makeshift bamboo gate closes the path. Staring at me, through the gate, are two children. I throw out a polite “Hello” which results in giggles and smiles. This is exactly what I am looking for and I start taking pictures. I move a little closer and take a few more. Now the rest of the family has taken interest in this stranger. The father instructs the children to open the gate so the kids can pose proper for me, thus ruining the picture. They invite me to look around their house and once again two cultures share a brief moment with only “Hello” and “Thank you” as common language.

Once in Cantho I again head for the water and another boat ride. This time I take a Vietnamese row boat. These boats, usually operated by women, are rather small and can be seen all over the delta and throughout Vietnam. The paddler stands at the rear of the boat and uses her weight to push the boat forward. They may look small but these women are strong. No matter where I go it seems that women are always doing a greater share of the work. Anyway, it’s late in the afternoon and we head down the river as the sun begins to set. Along the banks of the river are many houses built up to and in many instances over the water on stilts. As the light fades, I can see into the houses as we pass in the water. The orange yellow glow of lights inside contrast with the blue dusk glow outside. In many houses the glow of a TV stands out sharply with the simple open bamboo and wood construction of the homes. Atop the homes the silhouettes of a jumble of TV antennas pierce the darkening sky. Even here the tube rules.

As we head back the woman rowing the boat shows me her house and asks if I would like to go to her house and meet her family. Once again confronted with gracious hospitality I accept. Inside the house, I am offered a cup of strong and pungent tea. I force myself to drink politely. The whole family is here – her children, husband, and others. The youngsters practice their few English phrases they know on me. I mimic what I hear in Vietnamese and everyone giggles. Soon an older woman and her daughter come into the house. She speaks hesitant English, “ What is your name? Where are you from?” I tell her I am American. She looks at her daughter. “She is American too, only we can’t find her father.” I look at her daughter and I understand; she is Amerasian, the daughter of an American soldier and this Vietnamese woman. The woman tells me they are trying to find the father in the U.S. so they could emigrate there. All she knows is that his name is Sam. “It was a long time ago, I don’t remember too much. I haven’t spoken English in a very long time,” she says. Her daughter, half American and half Vietnamese, is outcast and will have a hard time marrying in Vietnam. Though long gone, the aftermath of the war still lingers

On the road early in the morning, I have a long ride ahead of me from Cantho to Chau Doc near the Cambodian border. The road roughly follows the Hau Giang River, a major tributary of the Mekong. Everywhere I am surrounded by green, primarily rice fields. The rice fields are divided up into rectangular plots with walls of mud all around. These walls allow for the plot to be flooded with water before the rice is planted. By hand small rice seedlings are placed into the mud below the water. Rice fields can be seen at any stage of growth from a freshly flooded field to waist high sea of green ready to be harvested. Out in a large field I see some women working the fields, so I stop and have a closer look. To get out to where they are I have to negotiate the thin mud walls separating the plots. I find a woman who is amused by my curiosity in this everyday task. The purple shirt she is wearing makes for a wonderful contrast to the green surroundings. For a moment she gets a break to exchange hellos and to laugh at this curious looking fellow with a camera. And then she is back to work.

And I am back on the bike moving with confidence. A couple of days of riding have convinced me that I am invincible, swerving around pedestrians and women on bicycles, passing others on motorbikes with a confident wave and smile. Riding with the wind in my face I am king of the road…until a bus comes by out of nowhere with its horn blaring, nearly running me off the road. Humbled, I proceed with renewed caution. What if that bus hit me? Would I even get to a hospital? If so would the cure be worse than the affliction? I begin to realize how far away I am from the world that is so safe and familiar to me. And that’s the joy of it. Being so far away, in both distance and in culture.

And farther I went.

The midday air is hot. Fortunately the heat is tempered by the constant breeze from my motion. I realize exactly how hot it is as I stop for gas. Not being near a large town, I find that gas stations are few. Along the road in front of little food stalls or people’s homes are glass bottles filled with a clear yellow liquid. This is black market petrol. A few thousand dong (the Vietnamese currency where one dollar equals 11,000 dong) is exchanged, the gas is poured with a funnel and I am off. I ask no questions as to whose bright idea it was to store gasoline in a glass bottle.

Chau Doc was my favorite town in the Mekong Delta. Maybe because it was the farthest from Saigon. Or maybe it seemed to best fit my vision of what the Mekong delta was all about: river based communities pushed up to the water, small boats everywhere, houses on stilts jutting over the water, and floating houses built on the water with trap door openings to the fish farms underneath. It’s not that I didn’t see these things in other parts of Vietnam, but they all seemed to come together in the right proportion right here. Then again, maybe it was the wonderful an chay food stall right in the middle of the market. An chay is Vietnamese for vegetarian, and for about 75 cents I had splendid vegetarian meals of tofu and vegetables.

I hop on the public ferry and go across the river to Con Tien Island where I walk along a road lined with small wooden houses on stilts. A group of children follow me as I walk. I say “Sin chau” and they say “hello”, then I say “hello” and they say “sin chau” and everyone giggles. We repeat this giggly exchange as I wander about. Along the river side, a large family poses for me in the open part of their house as I point the camera. At the foot of the house in the river two pigs blissfully lounge in the muddy water. Further down I encounter men unloading barrels of petroleum from a boat. They roll the barrels precariously along a narrow plank of wood from boat to shore. Everywhere I go the mechanics of life play themselves out right in front of me – on the street or along the river, from the growing and processing of food and livestock, transportation of goods, to someone getting a haircut, a welder fixing a motorbike, a tailor making and mending clothing, people eating and sleeping, commerce and activity of all kinds out in the open. And I realize how shielded we are from most of these activities in the industrialized world.

Instead of taking the ferry back to town I allow a woman and her young son to take me back in a row boat. We slowly move past more houses high on stilts and a neighborhood of floating houses. The sun is low, and the light is magnificent on this side of the river. The dull gray wood of the houses has turned warm and golden. As we glide along the water, we pass other boats propelled by women in brightly colored loose fitting clothes, the long paddles gracefully raising above the water, with cargoes of produce, fish and a man with a bicycle. People pass by on the water with smiles directed at me, as the receding light adds a softness to the movement on the river. The Chau Doc side is already in shadow with a cool bluish light setting itself apart from the fading warmth across the river. For a moment, everything seems to be held together by the sheer quality of the late afternoon light.

Walking along the street that follows the river through town I see many narrow alleys paved of wood that jut out over the water connecting the houses along the water with the road. All this makes for a strange kind of neighborhood – rickety wooden pathways on stilts, no basements, just water. Boats and bicycles for vehicles. People are washing clothes or preparing and eating meals, kids are curiously following me around, desperately wanting me to point the camera at them. I really like this place. I like the simplicity, ingenuity, and functionality that it exudes. And of course the friendly welcoming smiles. Walking along one of the raised wooden sidewalks above the water I encounter a family eating dinner. The houses in this tropical climate are usually open to some degree. Privacy as we know it is virtually unknown here. They smile at my interest in them, sitting on the floor around large bowls of rice, fish and vegetables. They offer me some food, I gracefully decline and move on, chasing the remaining light.

In the evening, I eat at a small restaurant where I am befriended by the family who runs it. Yet again, there is the ever present available daughter being highlighted for me. Before I know it an older uncle who speaks English has been summoned. We talk about his fine niece and I explain that although she is nice, beautiful and charming I am not looking for a wife in Vietnam. He translates as I speak and we all smile. I ask about the war and what has happened since. He is reluctant to elaborate his feelings. They were all very kind, and we ended up playing “lotto” (similar to bingo) all night. Everyone puts in 1000 dong and whoever wins gets the pot. I was embarrassed to have had good luck that night, to the disdain of one of the older aunts who seemed to think I was playing some American trick. I was hoping that the good luck would spill over into tomorrow, when I was to make my way further out to a place called Ba Chuc where the “bone pagoda” stands in haunting memory of the atrocities perpetrated by the Cambodian Khmer Rouge.

A long and uncertain road ahead of me, I make an early start on the motorbike, hoping that the chilling place I am going to is not an omen of my ultimate fate on this two wheeled death trap. Ba Chuc is where approximately 3000 innocent civilian Vietnamese were killed by the Khmer Rouge in 1978. The Khmer Rouge also slaughtered nearly one million of their own people during this time. I venture to this place to see for myself, to make the unreal very real.

The road takes me along channels of water leading out of Chau Doc used for flooding fields of rice and for fish farming with large nets that can be lowered and raised above the water. Just outside of Chau Doc is Sam Mountain, with its many temples and pagodas, standing out in the otherwise flat terrain. The road completely encircles the small mountain. Continuing on I leave the water, rivers and canals behind. The landscape seems drier here, but maybe it’s just the heat. The road stretches out in front of me and now I can see more mountainous terrain off in the distance towards Cambodia. The land begins to resemble the images of the “Killing Fields” I remember from the movie of the same name depicting what happened in this part of Asia during the 1970’s. It is decidedly less crowded here, barren for Vietnamese standards. In this vast open landscape I see two boys on a bike. The one in the rear is dressed in the bright orange robe of a Buddhist Monk, complete with shaved head. I chase them for pictures. We are equally amused by each other’s peculiarity.

At a small village the road to Ba Chuc veers off from the paved road and becomes a dirt and at times sand road pitted with craters. I feel an eerie sense of isolation and almost dread out here. People look at me with wonder as I maneuver the rough road on my motorbike. It must be rare to see a lone traveler out here. Feeling that I must be near the Bone Pagoda I ask along the way. They point down the road and let me know with their fingers that it is about 2 kilometers. I continue down the dusty road, 3, 4, 5 kilometers. I stop again wondering if I had passed it, but no, further down the road they point. “How far?” I ask. They indicate 2 kilometers. Skeptical, I wonder if it wasn’t a mistake to have come all the way out here. OK, I think to myself, 5 Ks no more. Fortunately at about 4 Ks I have found the dreaded place.

I park the bike and with trepidation and respect I approach a monument unlike any I have seen before. Staring at me through the glass walls of the six-sided structure are hundreds, if not thousands of skulls of the slaughtered innocent. Many of the skulls are broken by what must have been deadly blows. Behind the skulls are the other bones of the dead piled up in a gruesome mass. I feel like a voyeur looking at these poor souls stacked like a pile of rocks, almost undeserving of being here as I watch some Vietnamese come to silently ponder this part of their history. Inside the pagoda is a wall of photographs, thankfully in black and white, of many murdered people, men, woman, and even children, killed in horrible ways, bodies strewn on the steps and the grounds of the very pagoda I am standing in. In this solemn atmosphere a man eerily plays a flute in the other end of the room as the smell of incense fills the air.

Standing near the monument of skulls, I can overlook a wide field where a man with an ox driven cart moves alone. In the distance I look over to Cambodia and I realize I am at my furthest point. Far off and alone in many ways, my journey from here on is a process of returning. So back along the dusty road to Chau Doc I must go; maybe another night of lotto, to Vinh Long where Khanh and a cheerful dinner of an chay food wait for me, and then back to the rumble and roar of Saigon. And I realize not only will I travel in distance, along the rivers and canals of the Mekong, but in time as well, for I will travel from a war torn and agrarian past on towards the hectic and prosperous future that belongs to this land of the mighty river.