Archive for May, 2013

Kanga-rooted!

We interrupt this blog for a newsflash!

Ladies and gentlemen, I have finally received… my first ever death-threat!

I know, I know. I’m surprised it took so long, too. But the amazing thing was, this didn’t come from some disgruntled reader or an enraged literary critic (though I’m sure a few of the latter are hunting me down for crimes against the English Language) – oh, no.

This threat –  to “fuck me up” – came from one of the least-expected places; it was from the owner of a tour company, whose boat tour I was currently on. I wasn’t particularly happy with it, so I complained – and the result was a phone call from the boss, which was a torrent of abuse from start to finish. Oh, but the threat to fuck me up was apparently not a threat; it was “a guarantee”.

Presumably he didn’t know at the time that I was a travel writer.

What makes me laugh a little – now that I’m safely tucked away in my Hanoi hotel, and the immediate fear of enforced hospitalization has passed – is that, he’s probably threatened dozens of people, just like this, when they tried to complain to him. And I bet quite a few of them tried to convince him they were travel writers, or lawyers, just to assuage that horrible feeling of powerlessness you get when someone far higher up the food chain takes a dump on you.

But luckily for me, I am a travel writer. And luckier still, he didn’t believe me – or else he probably would have made good on his threat. Sorry, I mean his ‘guarantee’.

So! Mr Max Hart, of The ‘Real’ Kangaroo Café in Hanoi, Vietnam – stand up and be counted! You are now two things to me: 1): the first person ever to directly threaten to fuck me up (or, a little later in the same conversation, to have your friends wait at the docks to fuck me up); and 2) the best example of the worst customer service I have EVER experienced. Ever!

Oh, and am I allowed 3? An absolute, complete-and-utter wanker.

Max Hart of Kangaroo Cafe

Photo courtesy of A. Wanker. AKA Mr. Max Hart

The thing is, I’m laughing about it now – or trying to. I don’t want to let one incident sour my experience of Vietnam, although my sister-in-law – who is new to traveling – is already starting to wish she’d never left Perth. Because, less than 24 hours ago, this situation was deadly-serious. There were nine of us on that boat; six young ladies and three fellas. I was the oldest person present (though admittedly not the most mature… :0)  Now, I don’t know if any of you have formed an opinion of me after reading my books, but if you have I’m sure you’ll know that I’m a towering inferno of incandescent rage and violence… Or, um… not? Yeah, well. I think of nearly nine-billion people living on this planet at the moment, I am less intimidating than at least eight-and-a-half-billion of them. Hell, Mother Teresa could take me in a fight – and she’s dead! So to be threatened, verbally, very aggressively, and repeatedly, is not something I’m great at dealing with. But because my wife and her younger sister were amongst the passengers on the boat, I tried to laugh it off as the empty posturing of a man with a very small dick.

I was, however, a bit scared. Because we were totally at the mercy of this man. Floating in a quiet lagoon, at night, miles from anywhere. Outnumbered by the ship’s Vietnamese crew, our only neighbours a handful of other boats belonging to the same company… We had no allies, no language skills, and none of our mobile phones worked in the lagoon. Not that there was anyone we could have called. The guides, at their insistence, had kept all our ‘spare’ money, so that there was no chance the boat crew could steal it – which didn’t make us feel a whole lot better about the boat crew. Or the guides. It was slowly dawning on us just how precarious our position was, what with the mega-rich boss of the whole tour company personally threatening to have his associates attack us. ‘What if they came now?’ we thought. By tender (small transfer boat), from one of the other boats? What if he called a dodgy mate and asked him to send some guys to raid our boat? My traitorous mind kept imagining the conversation: “Yeah, only nine of ‘em. Six are chicks. No, the boat crew won’t stop you, I’ve told ‘em to let you in. Yeah, just fuck them over, take all their shit and give ‘em a bloody good kicking, then bugger off. I’ll get the crew to report a random robbery by no-one they recognised…”

Shit.

When our own tender fired up its engine left our boat for no immediately apparent reason around 11pm, and was gone for an hour, some of us were close to tears. I *may* have been amongst them – but internally, of course. Had to be a man in front of the ladies…

When dawn came, and we were still un-fucked-up, I have to say I was over-joyed. Maybe it had been the empty posturing of a man with a very small dick. But the tension aboard was still so strong that only two people dared stay aboard for the remaining day and night of the cruise they’d booked. The rest of us demanded to be taken back to Hanoi as soon as we made landfall for lunch.

I was rather pleased to be back on dry land.

Me kissing the groundI hadn’t realised until then just how tense I’d been. Suddenly, back on land, where escape was as simple as walking across the road and jumping on a bus, I felt much safer. I felt lighter, looser, like I could relax. Our guides took us back in their bus, and for the first time I thought there might actually NOT be a gang of Vietnamese gangsters waiting for us when we got there…

But enough of such ranting! Let me dig out a few photos to illustrate the rather disappointing experience that was the (apparently famous) Kangaroo Café’s overnight boat trip to Ha Long Bay.

Crappy Boat

Taking advantage of the three unbroken sun-loungers

The boat! She’s a beauty, ain’t she? Pity it wasn’t the boat we paid to be on. All the Kangaroo Café’s brochures tout their amazing boat, and go to great lengths to explain that having their own boat guarantees top quality. Other tour operators offering the same trip for far less money have been known to dump tourists in whatever boat is available, often a far crappier one than was advertised. Not so this Café! They only ever use their own boat. Except for us, who they dumped in whatever boat was available. And it was crap.

The Amazing Cave! If ‘lacklustre’ was short of a dictionary definition, we could quite easily substitute this rather uninspiring cave.

Stone cock formation

Yes, it’s ‘amazing’ – a stone willy. Hilarious! Honest.

I mean, I LOVE the natural world, and I adore adventure caving. I’ll be blogging about it next week, in fact. But the Amazing Cave was shit. I should have known, with a name like ‘Amazing’ that it would be an anticlimax, but I honestly think the bloke who named it was taking the piss. Unless he called it ‘Shit Cave’ until the PR boys put their spin on it.

A hole

The other feature of the Amazing Cave was, predictably, A Hole. And no, Max wasn’t there. Guess what this is supposed to be?

I will admit though, that it was amazing how fast we got through the place. Up the steps to it, around the cave, back down and back on the boat in a little over 20 minutes. I don’t know how we’d have managed it without our guide shouting at us constantly to keep moving, and not to keep stopping for photographs. I wasn’t crushed though, as I’ve got plenty of photos of caves that weren’t shit, and I was in need of a good sprint. And anyway, this cave wasn’t the tour’s main selling point. The selling point was a different cave we were supposed to be kayaking around – and the fantastic beach we were going to be visiting afterwards…

Penguin Bin

The Amazing Cave had Amazing Bins. Shaped like penguins, for no reason we could fathom.

Kayaking was set to be the highlight of the day, especially for my sister-in-law Vicky, who has never been in a kayak before. Luckily my wife has, and she was able to give her a bit of instruction, as our guide didn’t bother – he just pointed towards an area behind the tour boat and said, “go to the island with the temple on top.” What was funny, was he put me on my own in the front of a two-man canoe, and I spent the next ten minutes canoeing around and around in circles! Then Roo pointed out that kayaks are impossible to steer from the front, and held the thing steady while I climbed into the back. And then I could start going forwards at last!

Ten minutes after that, the kayaking was done. Our whole group had arrived at the island, and were waiting just off the beach, as instructed. The next ten minutes were spent being sworn at violently in Vietnamese by the drivers of dozens of tender boats that were criss-crossing that stretch of water, ferrying happy beach-goers back to their tour boats. I was nearly hit by a few of them, as they didn’t seem all that keen to avoid me. “Fuck off!” I yelled at the captain of yet another boat, as he screamed “MOVE, MOVE!” and ploughed his tender straight towards me.

KayakingAnother twenty minutes passed. I was a bit pissed off now, as I’d paid extra for an hour’s kayaking. In a cave. So far it had consisted mostly of dragging myself out of the path of belligerent tender-boat pilots, whilst waiting to be picked up. By the time our guide arrived, the whole group was scared – a bit panicked even – and mightily pissed off.

“The rules change!” our guide told us. “Can’t get out here. Now you have to go back where you come from!”

“There’s too many boats,” I told him. “Too dangerous!”

“No, must go back!”

Unhappy in Kayak

This is my ‘Are you f*cking KIDDING ME?!?’ face

No-one seemed keen. In the least. And it was starting to get quite late. So, one by one we paddled up to the docks, helped each other out of our kayaks, and left them with our guide. I narrowly avoided leaving a few four-letter words with him, too, but I managed to remain civil. And then we headed towards the second-most important venue of the day: the beach!

Beach

The Beach! There was a bloody great big sign, which said that the beach shuts at 5:30pm. Can anyone guess what time we arrived?

“This must be a new rule!” our guide declared, when I told him we’d been refused entry. So I showed him the sign, which had been pointed out to me by the beach’s security guards. “Ah,” he said. “Sorry. My fault.”

Yes, quite. But never mind, it only cost us a hundred bucks each to come here.

Still, you’ve gotta have what fun you can, eh? Tim here is showing me the true meaning of power…

Vadering on the boat

Power of The Force!

Although, the boat crew came up and gave us a bollocking for this afterwards. Something about not jumping any more because the deck was breaking…

And, finally… I know it’s a bit small-minded and petty, but it’s amazing how someone threatening to ‘fuck me up’ can put me in a petty mood. So here’s a link to the Kangaroo Café’s website. I invite you to visit it, and marvel – because it truly does look like it was designed as a school project. By an eight-year-old. With ADD. In 1987. What’s not to love? :0)

http://www.kangaroocafe.com/

Oh, and if you’re ever in Hanoi – or anyone you’ve ever known is heading that way – PLEASE tell them not to go near the Kangaroo Cafe, their dubious tours, or their psychotically deranged manager. They’re listed in Lonely Planet – which is why we paid extra to book with them – but I’m getting in touch with the LP staff now, so that should be sorted out soon enough… :0)

State Of Mind

Look at this! Another blog, in less than… well, less time than usual. So less than six months. In fact I’ve decided to transition the blog to be more like it should be – shorter posts, more often, and more heavily decorated with Roo’s gorgeous photos (and my rather crappy weird ones).

So, the good news? Less to read. More prettiness. And the bad? Well, you’ll be swamped with updates from me, detailing every miniscule facet of my life abroad. I might even post once a week!

Did I say swamped? Inundated, then. Positively deluged! So, sorry about that. But apparently I’m supposed to be taking this thing more seriously than I am. I’m not going to of course, but if I did it wouldn’t really be me, would it?

So, what’s on my mind today?

It’s fate. Because I think a lot about the road that has led me to be here, blogging from beside the pool in a hotel far too posh for me to afford in the western world. There is unlimited coffee refills with my free breakfast, and I’m planning on abusing that service until they cut me off.

Posh HotelAcross the road, I’m watching Vietnamese workers in conical straw hats use  medieval building techniques to construct what I assume will become another luxurious hotel. My laptop says it’s 39 degrees Celsius out there, and those guys are working hard. They’re displaying the kind of tenacity and ingenuity that makes me very glad to have been born in the UK – as I have neither.

Vietnamese BuildersAccording to those state-of-the-world type reports, I’m in the top 5% of the world’s super-wealthy – even though I own nothing more expensive than my rucksack full of stinky hiking gear and a laptop the size of a napkin. (Given to me by someone who is, by those same standards, definitely in the top 3%!).

Vietnamese Dong

Literally MILLIONS of Vietnamese Dong. And yes, there have been jokes – because that’s just how mature we are… :0)

I also feel lucky – and somewhat guilty – to have been born at this exact juncture in human history. Because with the level of technology we’ve developed thus far, I can do exactly what I want – which is travel cheaply, and still write via the internet. The world, with all her delights, is open and available to me – just before it falls apart at the seams. I can’t help but think: I may be the last generation to enjoy the planet in this form. With deforestation, over population, resource-depletion and global warming, it’s anyone’s guess as to what will be left for my children to travel around. So I do feel guilty. Not that that’s going to help overly much. But I try to do what I can, when I can, and to appreciate what we’ve all got while we’ve still got it.

Like $2 cocktails…  ;0)

Cocktails in a bucketSorry, I just realized that this post was taking rather a down-note. And I’d planned on writing about all the adventurous activities I’ve been doing, like caving, climbing and canyoning. But you know what? That stuff can wait for the next one – in less than a week, I promise – and I’ll leave you now with a ridiculously trite message, and some photos:

An idiot once tried to explain to me the concept of ‘the more you do, the more you see, and the more you see, the more you want to do.’ Only she couldn’t quite grasp the idea, and just kept repeating “the more you see, the more you see, and the more you see, the more you see. You see? The more you see…” (No prize for guessing who came up with this nugget of wisdom. Let’s just say I was stuck in a boat with her at the time, and leave it at that…)

I think what I’ll try and share is part of my own personal philosophy – though I am, of course, the biggest idiot of them all, and hence no more reliable than she was.

“Do everything you can. Experience it all. Take full advantage of what you’ve got, while you’ve got it, because, well, why not? And then – if you can – give something back. To the environment that supports you, and to those less fortunate than you. Because you might not make an obvious difference right now – but you set a good example. And if everyone lived this way, sure as hell it would change a few things!”

Well, I did say it would be trite. I’m new to this whole ‘thinking’ thing. And I’m still not sure if I like it…

Right. Enough BS from me. Here’s the pics.

A tiny preying mantis!

A tiny preying mantis!

A bigger mantis!

A bigger mantis!

And they say to always finish on a sunset...

And they say to always finish on a sunset…

 

 

Crazy Orange Monkeys

I’ve been told I haven’t written enough about Borneo. Probably because I haven’t written anything about Borneo. So, here it is folks – the true story of what happened when we went looking for orange monkeys…

We found them, of course.

They were down the back of the sofa. I ALWAYS said we should look there first…

Happy OrangutanNo. These guys were swinging happily around the most amazing animal enclosure I’ve ever seen – over 100 hectares of primary rainforest, trackless and unsullied by human-kind. On the edge of the preserve is a series of feeding platforms, and that’s where we waited to see the orangutans.

Orangutans are over ten feet tall, live for hundreds of years and eat anything smaller than themselves – including humans. Or maybe that’s dinoasuars? To be honest I had a fit of laziness (something to do with me writing this on the beach, no doubt) – so feel free to insert your own orangutan facts here via the magic of Wikipedia.

One thing I will say is that Orang-utan means ‘Man of the Woods’, and the word ‘Orang’ – meaning ‘man’ – is one of the most commonly used words in the Malay language. Seriously – it crops up in every conversation I hear around me, leading me to believe it’s used like ‘bloke’ or ‘fella’ – as in, “So I was playing pool with these three orangs in the pub…”

The apes, when they showed themselves, moved slowly and effortlessly, not scampering like monkeys but sort of draping themselves across the trees and letting them bend down and deposit them where they wanted to go. Seriously, if they were any more laid back, they’d have been horizontal. Peace-loving vegetarians with brown, soulful eyes, they definitely qualify as the hippies of the animal kingdom. I think I saw one wearing a Bob Marley t-shirt.

Mellow OrangutanWe were lucky enough to be there before the feeding, when a younger orangutan was strolling along the boardwalk fence, beckoning us to follow him, and to stay until the bitter end, by which point we’d seen about ten of the scruffy beasts.

And a little while later, we met their closest human relative.

For three incredible days and nights we cruised on, and hiked around, a massive jungle river called the

Kinabatinanangananagana… ananagan… agan agan… a nanna again? …an anagram game? Anyway, the point is, it’s a river. With a ridiculous name. And while we were there, we found evidence that not only was there a Missing Link between apes and humans in the distant past, but that the Link is alive and well today (and, apparently, lives in Maui). Oh yes – short, dumpy and slow-moving, our strawberry-blonde cruising companion Annabel was a dead ringer for an orangutan. She had the kind of intelligence level where, if she were caught waving a stick in the air, you’d be tempted to say, “Aw, look! She’s learning to use tools!”

But don’t worry! I’m not going to be needlessly mean to a defenceless woman. I’m going to tell you what she said, and let you decide…

A good example came on our first dusk cruise. We’d been lucky enough to see several orangutans in the wild, nesting in trees just back from the riverbank, and several troops of macaque monkeys, who swarmed around us as though we were invisible on their way down for an evening drink.

But when our guide pointed out a crocodile gliding silently on the surface of the water, Annabel asked him for his binoculars. “Wow,” she said, after a few seconds studying the creature, “it almost looks like a little reptile…”

I couldn’t help myself. “That’s because it IS a little reptile,” I told her.

“Yeah…” came her reply – not only blithely unaware of my sarcasm, but clearly not appreciating she’d said anything stupid in the first place.

Annabel

Annabel – getting stuck in on the jungle hike

Her ignorance was matched only by her ability to be so annoying it made my hands twitch with the desire to choke her.

Next morning, on the dawn cruise, we were all staring at a bird our guide had spotted. Roo (my wife) was checking it out in the bird identification book.

“Hey, can I see that?” Anabel asked. But rather than leaving it there, she did her trademark trick of asking again – and again – without pausing for breath. “Hey, can I see that one from yesterday? You know, the one we looked at in the evening? That little bird? Is it in there? Can I see it? The one from yesterday? Remember? Can I see that one? From yesterday? I want to look at that one. The little bird, from yesterday? Can I see it? Can I—“

At which point Roo just shoved the book at her and said “Take the damn thing.”

Quite unaware that she’d done anything out of the ordinary, she started flipping through the pages. “Oh, there are lots of little pictures in here! Lots of little birdies!”

She flipped a few more pages. “Wow, there’s more pictures! That’s amazing! The whole thing is pictures! And they’re all birds!”

She closed the book to study the cover in wonder.

It was called ‘The Borneo Book Of Birds’.

“Wooowww…”

Now, in case I didn’t make it clear, this was not some eleven-year-old child; this woman was clearly in her late forties. On the one hand I feel I should applaud her spirit, to be traveling at that age, and all alone. Well done her! On the other hand, I think it’s quite likely that she was alone because in all her forty-odd years on the planet, she’d never found anyone who could stand to be in the same room as her for more than an hour.

She was at her worst on our last morning, when, just as the sun was rising, we spotted a big male orangutan, sitting with his back to us in a tree about thirty metres from the boat.

orangutan back“Oh my goodness!” Annabel exclaimed. And then it began. With her eyes glues to the screen of her camera, her whining voice ratcheted up several notches in volume; “Oh, you beautiful creature! Please turn around! Pretty please! Say hello to us! Say goodbye to us! Hello there! Oh please turn around! Please? Turn around! Say hello! Say goodbye! Give us your blessing! Please say hello! Say goodbye! Say hello! Please turn around! Please say hello! Please turn around! Say goodbye to us…” And on – and ON – for the next five minutes.

I had to do something then which I’ve never done in my life (other than, occasionally, to my long-suffering sister). I put my hand on Annabel’s shoulder and said rather firmly, “Shut up.”

But I was sorely tempted to push her into the river.

River

The River

When it came time to leave, Roo and I were gutted. We’d had an amazing experience, staying in a little wooden hut, seeing giant monitor lizards, endangered hornbills and monkeys a-plenty, trekking the jungle day and night, feeding our fingers to fish (some kind of perverse justice there) – and we didn’t want to leave. As we sat enjoying our last breakfast in the rainforest, Annabel stood up to go.

“Well everybody,” she announced, “I’m Oh-Eff-Eff!” She glanced around smugly, quite pleased with her joke –  but she couldn’t resist letting us in on it. “Off!” she explained, beaming with her own cleverness. And then, thank God, she was off – leaving us all to bask in the warm glow of her wit.

People wonder if I make these characters up, and I’m both shocked and ashamed of the answer: no. Not a word of it. Sad to say, these individuals really are out there – and are at least partially derived from the same genetic material as the rest of us.

Be afraid.

And now, here’s a couple of Roo’s fascinating pictures to further illustrate our adventures!

Feeding Fish 1fEEDING Fish 2

Big camera lens

Roo was seriously out-lensed on the river!