Arriving at the end of the world (plus a shoe review)

So, here we are now, in Ushuaia. (Concerned and confused about how to pronounce it? Click here for some sound bytes by native speakers 🙂 ).

We haven’t been here long, and Roman is a bit under the weather, so we’ve seen next to nothing of it, but still, I am soooooo excited to be here!

Stole this off the web somewhere but now I can’t find the link. Please forgive me oh internet karma!

Here, in Ushuaia, the southern-most city on the planet. Here at Fin del Mundo, the end of the world. The city is home to around 60,000 people. It’s made up of a clutch of cheerfully colorful buildings nestled between the Beagle Channel (the friggin’ Beagle Channel of Charles Darwin fame!!) and the Martial mountains.

The cold air smells of metal and snow. The white-capped mountains look close enough to touch. They are craggy and fantastical and imposing, like something straight out of fantasy novel or movie. Our hotel room is wonderfully warm and cozy. There’s a perfect balance of exhilarating adventure and homey comfort coexisting in my day today.

Arriving by plane yesterday already felt like a mini-adventure. The views were just unbelievable.

Not the best picture but is that an amazing mountain peak or what?

After flying over clouds and then blank ocean, we finally crossed over to land. Flat earthy-colored expanses gave way first to hills and then dramatic rocky peaks thrusting towards the sky, interlaced with fingers of chilly looking waterways. All illuminated in long, afternoon sunlight. The jagged edges of fierce mountains, topped in snow that glowed blindingly in the sun, sent deep periwinkle shadows running across the valleys. We descended lower and lower, coming closer to the mountains and channel. Wraiths of clouds stuck on rocky peaks were backlit in the sun, luminous halos of water and light. The channel was an expanse of gun-metal grey, pricked by points of white – choppy surf and low-flying sea birds gliding above the water’s surface.

There was nothing outside our plane window in any direction but this rugged, magnificent nature. No sign of humanity’s existence what so ever. The water came closer and closer and then suddenly we hit the tarmac. Ushuaia’s airport is right at the edge of the Channel and I think it is the most beautiful airport I’ve ever seen. It’s like landing at a ski lodge; all vaulting ceilings and light wood. And you step out the main doors and there are all those amazing mountains and the Channel right before your eyes. Such a stunning arrival!

Have you ever seen a prettier airport?

View from the airport

A bad picture taken from the back of our cab but a first glimpse of Ushuaia….

Today is a chilling/planning day. We’ve got a bit of time here and a big wish list of things to do, so we’ve got to get organized for that as well as for our onward travel to Chile. I may also try my luck finding long underwear here since there was none to be had in Buenos Aires. We haven’t picked up much specific snow gear since space is always an issue and we’re mostly hoping that layering will do the trick to keep us warm and toasty.

I did buy some boots while we were back in BA though, and I’m already really glad I have them. They’re knock-off Uggs, a type of boot I would typically never be into. The tread isn’t great and they’re as attractive as Uggs and knock-off Uggs can get (that is, not attractive at all), but they ARE warm and that is totally what I was going for.

I’ve been meaning to do an update about shoes, since I switched out my footgear during our pit-stop in the United States.

Gear check in – sneaker reviews!

For the first half of our trip, I was either wearing sandals or my Merrell Moab Ventilator sneakers. These sneakers were great and I was really happy with their performance. They are pretty versatile in terms of having decent breathability versus some water resistance, they are comfortable, they were totally fine for all the activities we did throughout India/Asia and they put up well with me wearing the crap out of them!

What they were not though, was small or light weight. For sure, they’re not huge, bulky hiking shoes, but when you’re traveling the way we are, cutting down on space and weight where ever you can is always a good thing. So I decided to switch sneakers.

This time I went for New Balance’s Trail Minimus. New Balance partners with Vibram, who provides the outsole in this shoe. From Amazon, “New Balance takes their Minimus line off-roading with the WT20 trail runner. Exceptionally lightweight and breathable, yet ruggedly capable where it counts, your every stride is as sure-footed as it is cool and ventilated.”

After my Merrells, the New Balances feel like I’m wearing nothing, they weigh so little. They’re also tremendously comfortable. No break in time required for these; it’s been like wearing slippers while walking around town since day one. They definitely have a lot less support than I was used to – that’s kind of the point of them since they’re designed to make your foot do more of the work. The woman at the shop I bought them from warned about this and said you should ease into wearing them since it takes a while for the body to adjust to less support. Of course I didn’t and all I noticed was that my calves were perhaps a bit more tired than usual at the beginning. Am doing fine now though.

In defence of her advice, I do have pretty good body awareness from yoga and all that and try to be conscious about my form when I walk and run so I tend not to slam my heels down on the ground – something that a thicker sole will cushion somewhat and an action that is not particularly kind to the skeleton – knees especially.

Anyway, I absolutely love these shoes and am already toying with buying a second pair since they’ve already come out with newer line that is narrower, and my happy yoga toes like to have more space.

My cute NBs in the Australian sunshine! 😀

The New Balance have been fine for everything we’ve done so far in Australia and Argentina. NB – we haven’t encountered much rain and although I’ve not tested them I know they will not keep my feet dry like the Merrels.

They also don’t provide as much warmth as the Merrels. Thus the Ugg knock-offs. Please forgive my fashion faux pas but I’d rather be weirdly dressed than lose a toe to frost bite (or just have cold feet which would be the more likely scenario. ;-)).

Ugg….

Back in BA and other bits and pieces

Hello, hello! We just got back from a brilliant little three-stop tour in the northern half of Argentina. Now we are back in Buenos Aires for another week or so before it’s time to head off again.

It was great to get a break from the city. The majestic nature and fresh air of the places we visited just stunned me and got me feeling really grounded after the past weeks of city life. It’s a whole different side of the country and I’m glad that we’ll have the chance to see and experience a bit more of Argentina’s natural landscapes before we move on to our next country (Chile!).

On the flip side, it was also a really nice feeling to return to Buenos Aires yesterday. We arrived to a wonderfully sun-shiny afternoon, and that, plus returning to our familiar neighborhood and apartment with all our stuff (we only took small packs on our mini-trip) made for a lovely “welcome home”.

It’s going to be a busy week – on the to-do list are yoga and Spanish classes, getting to see as much of BA as we can fit in while we’re still here, and loads of prep for the next leg of our travels. Plus as much blogging as I can manage. 🙂

I’m heading to yoga soon but before I go here are some random bits and pieces…

Dancing in the streets

Our last night in Buenos Aires before we headed on our trip was just awesome. Among other things, we got to watch people dancing traditional folk dances at a square in the neighborhood in San Telmo.

The video doesn’t pick up the amazing vibe that was present; people were having such a good time, dancing with passion and without any self-consciousness and the music and movement gave me goose bumps to witness. We hung out for nearly an hour watching, getting explanations from a lovely, friendly porteño who would have danced tango with me if I had only had half a clue (he said he was an intermediate dancer – after “only” four years of practice – and that he was good enough to lead someone who knows a bit but alas, I haven’t learned ANY tango – yet… 😉 ). This dance isn’t tango, but one of the traditional dances from the countryside. Check it out!

Shopping and Spanish 

One day after yoga I took myself shopping. I’d been eyeing a scarf in a shop window on the way to the studio for two weeks and I finally worked up the nerve to go buy it. I also ended up picking up a few other things from another awesome boutique in our neighborhood.

Clothes shopping probably doesn’t seem that noteworthy, but it was exciting for me because 1) I managed to communicate in Spanish on my own for the first time! (usually Roman is with me and he does the talking for the both of us since he’s got a couple years worth of study on me) and 2) I love the fashion here in Argentina!

The second shop, where I got all the clothes, was a great, small, affordable boutique that carries pieces from Buenos Aires designers. (in case you are in BA and want to check it out – it’s called Ofhelia, at Sánchez de Bustamante 2007)

Here’s what I picked up.

The scarf that started it all…

Comfy maxi skirts!

Although the porteña seem to be dressing in somber colors for the winter, I definitely seemed to go for warm, summery hues.

I did pick up something less tropical and more practical as well – take a look at my new silly hat. It may make me look like a smurf (so says Roman), but I know I won’t care how I look so long as I’m warm during out next adventure – we’ve decided to take the plunge into full on winter and next week we’ll be heading to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world! I’m super excited about it!! 😀

And here are a few teaser photos from the past week – Iguazu, Salta and surrounding areas, Mendoza and the Andes! And now, I’m off to yoga! 🙂

Southern hemisphere updates and fashion reports

Written yesterday but posted today since we had no internet till now…

It’s Saturday, which means that we’ve been here in Buenos Aires for a whole week now. It’s warmed up a couple of degrees since we arrived, or I’m getting used to the colder temperatures, but I’m still missing the sun – I think it’s showed its face for a total of about three hours since we’ve gotten here. Here’s hoping our second week in BA will be a bit brighter!

Weather aside, it’s been a slow start here in Argentina. We had done the research and figured out a route through Australia before we left the States. Our time in Oz was so busy that we hadn’t gotten around to investigating more than an apartment, Spanish school options and the ticket to Argentina before we were boarding the plane to BA. This week we’ve been total homebodies, hanging out in the apartment because of all the rain or to catch up on admin and research or to wait around for someone to show up and get the internet going or fix the washing machine.

So it hasn’t been the most fun week, but it’s been productive and I’m excited for some of its prospective yields. Our internet seems to work about 30% of the time now which is an improvement over 0% (apparently this is the norm around here), and the washing machine seems to be on track, although our handy man warned us not to leave it on when we’re not around in case it floods or sets the place on fire. Awesome.

Spanish classes start bright and early this Monday. I’ve found and started going to a yoga studio not too far from the apartment where the teachers are all American and mercifully teach in English. I’m investigating tango classes. Roman has gotten us set up with sim cards with 3G for our phone (about as reliable as the internet in our apartment). And we’ve sussed out a wish list of exciting places we want to visit here in Argentina and have even got some ideas for where to head next. So things are looking up!

The plan for the rest of the weekend, now that we’ve been so productive, is to start checking out some of the more touristy/famous spots here in BA (weather permitting). We haven’t seen all that much of the city yet, but we have started to know our way around our neighborhood, which is a nice feeling.

Where we live

We’re staying in Palermo, an upper-middle class neighborhood which is meant to be one of the nicest places in the city to live.

There are two parks not far from our flat and plenty of grocery stores, little produce shops and kiosks within walking distance. There are a couple of massive shopping centers close by too; these seem to get the most pedestrian traffic of the area. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a line for coffee so consistently long as the one at the Starbucks at Alto Palermo. We’ve discovered two streets within walking distance that are lined with some really enticing restaurants, wine, cheese & meat shops and boutiques. I’ve been happily cooking in my cute little kitchen this past week, but I’m looking forward to start trying out some of the local eateries – once I have a bit of Spanish vocab under my belt so I have half a clue what I’m ordering. The clothes shops in the area are definitely going to be a problem for me. 🙂 I need to keep reminding myself that we are on a budget!

Fall fashion and more

Obviously we haven’t been here long enough for me to know very much of anything about the porteños (what BA-ers call themselves), but I’ve still enjoyed the people watching in our neighborhood immensely.

I started getting into local fashion while we were in Asia. Clothing over there, especially for women, tends to be rather conservative by Western standards (notable exceptions – Bangkok, the Philippines and some Chinese tourists). In some of the places we traveled, I would have to think twice about bearing an elbow or kneecap as a woman. When we left Asia to come to the States, it was the middle of winter, so I spent the months there covered up too.

I actually experienced a bit of culture shock when we first arrived in Australia at the tail end of their summer. I loved how the easygoing atmosphere in Oz translated into what people wore. Women’s fashion is definitely not uniform there and it seems like most anything goes. Basically, wear what makes you happy. The one element that caught my eye was that there was a lot more skin than I was used to – after all that time in Asia and my winter in the States anyhow. Lots of low-cut dresses, shorts and t-shirts being worn even when it was cold out, and if we saw a teenage girl, chances were she’d be walking around in shorts so short that her bum was sticking out the bottom. No joke. Did my time in Asia turn me prudish, or is this too much? Or should I say too little?

What do you think? Too short?

Fashion, or at least autumn fashion, here in BA seems to be more conservative. I’m looking forward to see what it’s like in the rest of Argentina and BA, but the people in Palermo anyhow have a practical but stylish look about them. And as far as I’ve observed so far, there is definitely a bit of a uniform for the young women around here. Let me paint a picture of a typical porteña this season.

She’s got loads of long hair, which she lets tumble carelessly down her back or which she piles unceremoniously (sometimes asymmetrically) on her head. She wears little to no make up; same goes for jewelry. She favors somber colors – navy, grey, brown, olive, maroon, black, black, black, but almost always accentuates this palette with a splash of bright color – nails, shoes, a colorful top or most often a cheerful patterned scarf. She’s wearing jeans or leggings and either way her pants are definitely form fitting. Leggings are often in funky, geometric patterns. Her coat is dark and practical but not unstylish. On her feet she wears sturdy, flat-soled boots, chuck tailors or demurely colored galoshes (probably as a defense against the plentiful dog poop all over the sidewalks in BA. Not a bad idea!).

It’s a look I like – although I’m not sure my fashion sensibilities have recovered yet from China. Especially with my latest purchase. It’s cold down here, and in an effort to keep warm and to keep the aforementioned street dirt out of our apartment, we’ve been on the hunt for slippers since we arrived. I guess they’re not a popular purchase in Argentina, cause it’s taken us forever to find some. Wimp about the cold that I am, I went ahead and bought the very first – and in my defense only – pair that I could find. Now I have warm, but pretty ridiculous looking feet. So much for being a fashionista…

Possibly the most ridiculous slippers ever?

Fashion situation – your help needed!

One part of discovering a new country and culture is learning about traditional and local fashion.

I absolutely loved traditional fashion in India (that’s about the only type of fashion you see there, in fact). The stunning, vibrantly colored saris were to die for. I never worked up the nerve to try to get myself into one (NOT an easy process), but I did buy myself some salwar kameez, which were just as colorful and a lot easier to put on!

And then I developed a minor obsession with the longyi/tube sarongs in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, picking up (at least) one new one for myself in each new country…

Modern fashion in Thailand was also great – quirky and fun and cute, if not a bit on the skimpy side at times – and I’ll admit I went a bit nuts shopping in the fantastic street markets of Bangkok.

Vietnam’s ao dai I admired from a distance. It’s no longer worn in the day-to-day but we saw plenty of women working in hotels, restaurants, etc. who donned them as a uniform and looked great in them.

(It’s not something for me though. I’ve determined that to pull of an ao dai you have to be 1) Vietnamese, 2) elegant, 3) tall, or 4) slender. I am a healthy weight but I wouldn’t call myself slender; I am short and white and many wonderful things but elegant sure isn’t one of them. My beautiful friend Jean, who is items 2 through 4, however, would totally rock an ao dai, for example. However, I digress…)

Having turned into quite the sponge for Asian fashion, I am finding myself totally overwhelmed by China. Apparently, anything goes in this country, and boy, does it ever go.

I’ve actually stumbled upon a whole wonderful blog by a person who is doing a study on the emergence of fashion in China – it’s really fascinating and often hilarious and it mirrors and delves into some of the bewilderment I’ve experienced in the face of Chinese “fashion”.

So we’ve seen quite a range of styles here.

Traditional garb that minority groups have been rocking for centuries. Communist-era blues and greys on the older generation. But it’s the modern fashion that throws me for a loop.

I don’t want to blow things out of proportion. Most modern-dressed Chinese we’ve seen look normal to well-dressed. But there are still lots of people who seem to be trying to push the envelope of style and taste. And these people seem to congregate at the country’s major tourist spots – i.e. many of the places we’ve been spending time at. The fashion is so overwhelming that I’ve begun to lose track of which direction is North, aesthetically speaking. My arrow is pointing to something, but I don’t know anymore if it’s tacky or sublime.

This has been exacerbated by the fact that China has been by far the coldest place we’ve been in ages. What little style I was managing to scrape together with my small wardrobe has been thrown out the window in the name of keeping warm.

Basically I will wear as much of what’s in my pack as possible in a desperate effort to stay warm, regardless of how badly it clashes or how ridiculous it looks. Roman teases me that I’ve gone native, and I am concerned that between being dazzled by Chinese fashion and my need to keep out the cold, my fashion compass has gone completely bust.

So, I’m asking for your help. I’ve started capturing just some of the more impressive ensembles on “film”. I hope I can still tell what constitutes good style and what is just too much, but I’d appreciate the input of people who have a bit more perspective than I do at the moment! 😉

So without any further ado… Please help me reset my style gauges to fashionable!

Fashion forward or fashion fail?

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What’s striking about these two ladies, especially the one in the spike heel boots, is that they were in Dazhai, a small farming community that is small part cobble stone streets, big part narrow, hilly dirt paths through farm lands. You can take the girl out of the city…

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Silly

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I actually think this guy who was waiting at the bus stop with us looks really dapper. What you can’t see is that the checks on his vest are made up of “Cs” and “Ks” – a really poor Calvin Klein knock off that could have gone horribly wrong, but he makes it and the whole ensemble work in my opinion. Fashion forward!

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Thanks for your help! 😉

Tiger leaping gorge: my two cents

This is a post for any normal person wondering whether they should hike the gorge or not. If you’re regular trekker and know what you’re doing, you probably don’t need this advice. 🙂

Wondering how challenging hiking the Gorge really is? So were we…

Roman and I may have been living in Switzerland, but neither of us are serious hikers. But I’m crazy about mountains and we love the outdoors so were interested in doing the hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge in the northwest of Yunnan province. Lonely Planet raved and was encouraging about it but also had this to say about the hike:

“The gorge trek is not to be taken lightly. Even for those in good physical shape, it’s a work out… A few people … have died in the gorge. Over the last decade, there have also been cases of travellers being assaulted on the trail. As always, it’s safer in all ways not to do the trek alone.”

This advice gave us pause and we decided to do some internet research to see what we were potentially getting ourselves into.

We found a lot of info and blog entries; none of it made things any clearer. Some people made the hike sound like the biggest challenge and a life-changing event, others painted it as a piece of cake.

Having hiked it myself now, I’ll jump into the muddle and add my own, hopefully helpful, perspective.

The bottom line

Just to paint the picture, Roman and I are in our early thirties. We are healthy and in decent shape but not massively fit or sporty. (Going into the hike, I even had a cold.) For us, hiking the Gorge was totally manageable.

There are a couple of challenging sections but we paced ourselves for those and were fine. There were also a lot of flat, easy-going sections. There were some bits on the second day that made me glad it wasn’t raining. That would have been do-able even if it was slick but doing it safely would have made for slow, muddy hiking.

We shared parts of the trail with a lovely French couple. I would guess they were in their sixties and they often out-paced us (I blame my cold! 😉 ).

So if you are considering doing the hike and are reasonably fit I would totally encourage you to do so.

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Some bits of the trail are wonderfully flat and totally easy

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Some are more of a scramble. This is looking up after just coming down the steep, rocky path. Ok when it’s dry, would have been tough if it was raining…

Things that might be helpful to know

We did the hike in October, so my advice is based on doing the trail in autumn. Other advice might apply to spring and summer. 🙂

– It is possible to hire guides but the trail is clearly marked with blue and yellow signs and spray painted arrows and advertising from the various guesthouses along the way. We had no problem finding our own way – just keep your eyes open and you’ll be fine.

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Signs along the way on the trail, each of them with the same spelling mistake 😉

– We were told that the drive from Lijiang to the start of the trail would take about an hour; it ended up taking two. The later start meant that it would have been tight for us to reach the halfway point before dark. We weren’t bothered by stopping at an earlier guesthouse, but some people might want/need to get to the halfway point on the first day. You DON’T want to hike the Gorge in the dark.
If you are there at a time of the year when there are fewer hours of light in the day, make sure you start early enough. The drive from Zhongdian/Shangrila was also about two hours. (Maybe both drives will go faster for you, but it’s China – when we were returning from Zhongdian the bus ride between Tiger Leaping Gorge and Lijiang actually took closer to 2 hours 40 minutes when we had to stop for a half hour at one point for no apparent reason…)
I’d also agree with LP’s advice – don’t hike the Gorge alone. Better to be safe than sorry.

– There are different versions of maps of the Gorge – ask your hotel if you need a copy. Most of them list the same hiking times between different points. We found the times listed to be accurate, based on our moderate pace (which included breaks for photo ops ;-)). (I’ll add a photo of the map to this post later)

– Pack as light as possible! I’ll include our packing list below. Lonely Planet advises to bring 2 – 3 liters of water per person. We found that 1.5 liters per person per day was more than enough, but we were hiking in cool, overcast weather. I will bet it gets plenty hot when the sun is out.
There will be spots along the way where you can get drinks and snacks but some stretches you’ll be walking for a while with nothing in sight but the beautiful nature, so it’s definitely good to err on the side of caution with water and I’d have at least a Snickers (sold everywhere in and around the gorge) or some fruit with you in case of and energy lull.

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Gorge views, day one. Overcast but still lovely!

– Accommodation in the gorge is simple but fine. We stayed at the Tea Horse Guest House. For RMB 60 we could have gotten the basic room, which is just a room with a bed. We sprung for the deluxe room at RMB 180, which came with an en suite bathroom (western toilet, shower, sink), soap, TP, towels, hangers and a lovely view. I used the public toilets at the Halfway Guesthouse the next day and while the view was as stunning as Lonely Planet mentions, the smell of it made me REALLY glad that we paid extra for the bathroom at Tea Horse. 🙂

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Arriving at the Tea Horse Guest House. Check out that gorgeous vibrant red Bougainvillea!

Food at the Tea Horse was simple but good and the portions were massive. The electricity cut out briefly a couple of times so it may be a good idea to have a flashlight or mobile phone with a light on hand after dark. 🙂

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Our room at Tea Horse

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Our view at Tea Horse – not bad! 🙂

What to pack

Roman and I each carried our daypacks. Aside from the aforementioned food and drink, here’s what we needed:

• Layers. It was definitely cold and wet at different points during the hike but I also worked up a sweat during the more challenging sections. You’ll want to make sure you can keep warm enough and dry too if you have to hike in the rain like we did. The guest houses in the gorge provide electric blankets but are not heated so having a (dry) long sleeve shirt to sleep in is good. In addition to my base layers I traveled with my fleece, raincoat and scarf which were essential. I had extra clothes as we were continuing on to Zhongdian – I didn’t mind having my warm vest when it was time to eat dinner outdoors at our guesthouse! 🙂
• A side note – keep your clothes and other sensitive things dry by storing them in plastic bags in your pack.
• Sunscreen and lip balm – it can get dry and windy. We didn’t need the sunscreen the first (wetter) day but I was happy to have it the second.
• Tissues. I needed tons because of my cold but these are always a good thing to have on you – never know when the toilet you’re using won’t have TP.
• Basic toiletries only. You’re gonna get sweaty and dirty anyhow…
• Only the essentials of our valuables. We kept the laptops at our hotel back in Lijiang with no problem. Of course you have to feel comfortable with the hotel that’s keeping your stuff…
• Camera – worth the extra weight!

Things we didn’t use but were good to have along just in case:

• Hats and sunglasses – the sun made an appearance only during our last hour in the Gorge but then it was plenty powerful!
• A change of clothes – our rain coats did the trick and kept us dry but it would have been pretty miserable going if our clothes were really wet.
• Basic travel meds – you never know!

I’ve gone into greater detail about my backpack and other gear in earlier posts if you want to know more.

One thing I don’t think I’ve talked about before is socks. I have a couple of pairs of Smart Wool socks. I didn’t use them tons in SE Asia because of the heat, but for mild to cool weather, they are brilliant. Your feet stay dry and warm – never too hot – and they are comfy as heck. Love them!

If you’re thinking about visiting Tiger Leaping Gorge, I hope this info is helpful. Happy hiking! 🙂

My new (miraculously NON-food-related!) obsession

Not only Roman’s cold, but now pouring rain is keeping us from the Angkor temples – another perfect day for catching up on the blog and researching our next stop: Vietnam. 🙂

Here’s a post on something that’s become a bit of an obsession for me: Sarongs!

Most people associate sarongs with flowy, light-weight beach wear – a quick google search shows the same tendency. http://hubpages.com/hub/How-to-Wrap-a-Sarong

This is not the sort of sarong I am talking about. My obsession is with the traditional cotton wrap skirt that we’ve encountered all through Asia.

My obsession started in Myanmar, where this type of clothing is called a longyi, and both women AND men where it, albeit in different styles. With a little encouragement from my friend Ohmar, I started to learn how it was worn, and even bought an inexpensive acrylic version from the market in Bahmo. I couldn’t stop worrying about my technique though and was constantly nervous that the skirt, secured only by my inexperienced wrapping and tucking, would fall down at any second. After a couple of self-conscious wearings, I gave up and shipped it home.

My mother loves to quilt and I love to shop for exotic materials for her while I’m here in Asia. A couple of months after Myanmar, I was with my friends Juelle and Donovan at the weekly market in Ban Krud when some gorgeous cotton material caught my eye. I picked up one purple and one orange bit for my mom, only to discover when I got back to the hotel that they’d already been sewn up: the ends of the rectangular material are sewn together to create a tube of cloth forming a longyi or, as it’s known in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, a sarong! Always eager to play dress up with local fashion, I couldn’t help myself – I tried one on and this time it stuck. My wrapping technique still wasn’t great but the material was too pretty to be ignored. I kept one for myself and felt like a tropical goddess wearing it around, despite my fears of coming unwrapped! 🙂

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My second sarong/longyi purchase and the one that really started it all

This was the beginning of the obsession! The gorgeous colors and patterns draw me in; despite the fact that I am probably ending up with far more sarongs than I will every possibly need, still I have to pick up at least one in every country we visit. I’ve been practicing loads and am no longer scared of the skirt falling off while I’m walking around. 🙂 (It does happen sometimes that it starts to get loose – then I just do like the locals and re-adjust and fasten where ever I happen to be.)

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The sarong I picked up in Laos

Here in Cambodia, I bought an unfinished bit of material, and the friendly seamstress who sewed it up for me gave me some more pointers on how the locals work their wrap – check the photographic step by step guide below. 🙂

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My latest purchase from Battambang, Cambodia

As much as I love the sarongs for comfort and fashion reasons, the best thing about them is quite possibly the reaction they get from locals. They’re beautiful and make great souvenirs in my opinion yet I never see other Westerners wearing them, and from folks’ reactions, neither do they. Walking around in one inevitably draws stares, smiles, laughter and friendly comments.

In Ko Lanta I got thumbs up from local women, in Kratie I got a kick out of the old man who, after I was pointed out to him by a friend, emphatically exclaimed “Oh my God!”. Here in Siem Reap, a friendly young woman in a store I was shopping with told me how she loves to wear sarongs at home even though her mother makes fun of her for it (while people almost exclusively wear them in Myanmar and lots of women in Laos wear them, it’s much less common to see sarongs here in Cambodia, especially in younger people and less rural areas), and said it made her very happy to see me in one. 🙂

How to wear a sarong – the southeast Asia way

I’m sure there is a more accurate/articulate way to explain this but hopefully it makes some sense. As with most things, I’m finding practice makes perfect! 🙂

The ends of the sarong material are sewn together to create a tube:

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The sarongs I’ve bought are really long (and while I’m short, most Cambodian women we’ve met are even shorter!). I asked the seamstress if she could hem it for me but she said that’s not done. Instead, you can adjust the sarong by folding the top of the material until it’s at your desired length.

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Pull the sarong strongly to one side. Hold the material to your hip to create a crease, pulling the extra material strongly away from your body.

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Keeping the material secure at your hip with your hand, fold and wrap the extra material tightly around the front of your legs.

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Pull the top corner of the extra cloth out and up, against the inner layer of cloth.

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Tuck the upper corner of the outer cloth into the skirt. This is usually where locals stop; I like to tuck down the edges of the skirt for extra security! 🙂

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The finished product! Typically the women I’ve seen wear the sarong with their shirt tucked into it, as in the photo.

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Gear check in

A technical post for any interested fellow travelers. 🙂

Going home gave me the chance to switch out/augment some of my travel gear; the rainy season in Laos is affording us the opportunity to test some of our stuff’s durabilty/imperviousness. Here are some notes/reviews.

Back packs

Roman and I both bought the Osprey Waypoint 65 for the trip. It comes with a large, main pack and a smaller day bag that can strap on tot he back of the larger pack.

So far I am satisfied with the large pack, but I’d been getting frustrated with the day bag. It’s ability to attach to the large pack necessitates some compromises in terms of access and space. It’s a function I’ve never used – the one time I tried it I felt like I about to teeter over at any moment because of how it skewed my center of gravity. I’m traveling with a camera, and once the camera bag is in the day pack, there’s basically no room left for anything else.

So when I was home, I ditched the day bag and picked up a new back pack – Eastern Mountain Sports’ 20 liter Fen (women’s), and I’m really happy with it. It fits tons more than the Osprey day bag and is really comfortable. (Although it is definitely a women’s pack – Roman finds it much less comfortable.) It also did a decent job staying mostly dry during the rainiest sections of our bike trip – although I’d recommend putting anything you really want to keep dry in plastic.

Shoes

I’ve also ditched my Naot sandals. As light weight and comfortable as they were, I could never adjust the velcro strap as tightly as I would have liked and I came too close to twisting an ankle too many times – they had to go. They’ve been replaced by my cheap as chips H&M flip flops. Less arch support, sure, but boy are they portable. 🙂

Still loving my Merrell Moab Ventilator sneakers, although even they were no match to the weather we encountered on the road trip. They are currently caked in mud and drying out in the low-land sun in Pakse; we’ll see how well they recover!

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Our mud-splattered bike, shoes and legs after one of the more slippery patches of road. Will our shoes ever be the same again? 😉

Bottoms

We shouldn’t encounter too much cold weather any time soon, so I got rid of my layering leggings and a couple of other items of clothing. My bottoms currently consist of my original Eastern Mountain Sport Compass Pants (still love ‘em. They got totally soaked as well during the bike trip and dried out most times even as we were still on the bike), a second pair of EMS brand capri pants (also really good!), the lovely orange and brown sarong I bought in Thailand and a pair of shorts for when I can get away with them (in some cities and tourist spots I feel comfortable bearing knees. :-)).

Rain gear

The advent of the rainy season means I finally have a chance to use the fancy pants rain jacket I’ve been carrying around for months. It was one of the more expensive items I invested in for the trip so I’m glad it’s getting put to use! It’s a Mountain Hard Wear Typhoon Jacket (which I affectionally call the froggy), and I’m pretty well pleased with its performance. It’s the only reason there were still some dry patches left on my body after biking through the rain on the Bolaven Plateau – no small feat considering the amount of water we were up against! Although if you own one please note that the pockets must be fully zipped or else they will leak if you are driving into the rain as we were. I zipped but didn’t double check the first time and ended up with a wet belly as a result. It also does a good job as a wind breaker if, for example, you’re biking in cooler temperatures.

Girl stuff

I won’t go into detail, but another bit of gear I can recommend to women travelers is the Diva Cup. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you’ve got the hang of it, it’s a Godsend for long-haul flights, endless bus journeys with minimal stops and situations where you have to deal with questionable bathroom situations. 🙂 Also good for the environment!

Pearls of wisdom from our bike adventure

Roman and I are just back from an awesome little road trip adventure through southern Laos (more or less Lonely Planet’s “Southern Loop” if you’ve got the book). We rented a little Honda in Pakse and spent four days on the road, rolling around the countryside, checking out some interesting towns and villages, and getting acquainted with the rainy season in southeast Asia. 😉

I’m having some computer-related technical issues at the moment so I’ll do a proper post with pictures about the trip later on, but here are some notes in the mean time.

Lessons from the road

In case you are planning to do your own bike trip around and on Laos’ Bolaven Plateau during the wet season, here are some nuggets I learned/rediscovered that may come in handy:

  1. A little sun goes a long way in southern Laos.
    Especially if you’re fair like I am (even if you are wearing SPF 70!). Covering up for those hours on the road is advisable.
  2. Changes in altitude may significantly affect temperature.
    While we were sweating in the valley, we were shivering in the mountains. An additional layer of clothing would not have gone amiss.
  3. What appears to be light rain becomes heavy rain when you are driving through it on a bike, even at slow speeds.
  4. What appears to be heavy rain is not something you want to drive through on a bike in southern Laos.
    Trust me on this one.
  5. Travel with extra plastic bags.
    You never know when you’ll need someplace to put trash, last-minute waterproofing for your gear, or impromptu galoshes when your shoes get utterly and completely soaked.
  6. When you are in the middle of no where, you haven’t seen another soul for ages and there is no hope of a bathroom for miles and you finally give in and decide to pop a squat in the great outdoors, ineveitably someone will manage to suddenly show up while you are in the middle of your business.
    Seriously, I am two for two for this happening to me in Laos and not feeling too great about that 100% track record.
  7. Passengers are advised to hold on.
    Even when the road looks decent, you never know when the next bump, pothole or patch of bad road will occur. It’s best to have at least one hand holding on at all times, preferably two.
  8. Any right of way you assume you may have as a driver of a motorized vehicle will be entirely ignored by cows, goats, buffalo, pigs, chickens and dogs.
    Don’t expect them to take any notice of you, let alone move out of the way.
  9. While oncoming traffic is infrequent, do expect it approach from the middle of the road or in your lane.
    This is especially true on blind curves.
  10. When crossing paths with or being passed by buses and trucks, brace yourself.
    You will be hit in the face with a spray of stinky air, dust and grit. It’s best to hold your breath and keep your mouth firmly shut.
  11. Bugs in the face are inevitable.
    As above, keeping your mouth shut is advisable!
  12. Enjoy the view!
    Beautiful farmlands, dramatic mountains, gorgeous skyscapes, lush forests, stunning waterfalls, impressive coffee plantations, lovely villages and lots of smiling Laotion faces are yours to discover!

Packing for the unknown

What do you bring with you when you don’t know where you are going, what you’ll be doing or how long you’ll be traveling?

This has been the fun mental exercise the past month or so. Roman and I spent probably a total of 8 hours picking the brain of the (very helpful!) assistant manager at EMS in my hometown with these and more questions which has helped me feel a bit more prepared. but I still feel like I’m doing one of those corporate training day exercises where they ask you what tools you’d take from your crashed plane to survive in the desert. For all the apparent logic applied, when you go round the room for the answers, inevitiably you find your judgement has led you astray and you end up with plenty of items that are totally pointless and missing something that would have really helped with your survival. While I’m not nervous, I am curious to see how our projection of what we need lines up with reality.

For my future amusement therefore, here’s an overview of some of the stuff we’re taking.

Travel nerd stuff (some, not all)

Eastern Mountain Sports Tech Wick T-Shirt (2)
Eastern Mountain Sports Tech Wick Long Sleeve Shirt (1)
Eastern Mountain Sport Compass Pants (1)
Eastern Mountain Sports Techwick Bikini Underwear(3)
Moving Comfort Alexis Sports Bra (1)
Naot Rachel Sandal (1)
Merrell Moab Ventilator (1)
Mountain Hard Wear Typhoon Jacket (1)
The North Face TKA 100 Long Sleeve Masonic Hoodie (1)
Stuff Sacks
Sea to Summit 100% Silk Lightweight sleeping bag liner
MSR Ultrasoft Travel and Sports Towel

We also picked up nifty Osprey packs – hope I end up loving mine as much as I think I will. And non-tech clothes, electronics, meds and some other bits and pieces haven’t made the list.

In case you didn’t catch that – that’s two pairs of shoes I’m traveling with. The options have gone from high heel, low heel, no heel, dress up, dress down, old school, new school, does it match my outfit or do I just love them to two: hot or cold. Makes me uncomfortable while being totally liberating at the same time. 🙂

Toiletries are also down to a minimum; my ego is currently in convulsive death-throes over the lack of multiple types of wrinkle-fighting creams, etc., but I suspect these will be forgotten pretty soon too. I was always a tom boy growing up. I’ve embraced the whole dress up, make up thing since I started at my first corporate job, but I really think it will be amazing to wake up in the morning, simply shower (when possible!!) and have breakfast and more or less be ready for the day. Like being a kid again. To be able to spend more time looking out at the world than thinking about how the world might be looking at me.

For comfort

One physical book, a novel in German I’ve been battling with for years now
Plenty of books and music and other entertainment in electronic form (a library of 50 books in the palm of my hand – saving grace!)
A guardian angel pendant from my mother
A small book of photographs of people I love
A silk scarf gifted by a friend years ago that will be making a return visit to India
My own pillowcases
A cloth easily-fold-able yoga mat
And of course my boyfriend (talk about a saving grace!)

I think that’s it. But I’m sure I’ll collect other things along the way. Hope it’s enough to help create home where ever we are.