Pulpology: Mark & Sonia's Intercontinental Absurdities!

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28 October 2008
One week to go
Where the rubber hits the road

Whew, it's been a busy few weeks nailing down the final trip details. And with just over one week to go, it's just about time for the last-minute freakout. Except things seem pretty well under control, at least for the moment. I did go through the reality-bites doldrums for a while last week. Does that happen to other people too, or is it just me? It's the phase in travel planning where you transition from daydreaming and inspiration to figuring out what is actually feasible. When it's time to fill in the blanks, what seemed like a good idea on paper can turn into a complete impossibility. Suddenly that straight line on the map from Point A to Point B becomes a nearly-impassable three-month slog during monsoon season. Or that CouchSurfer you'd been chatting with is no longer available to host. Or you realize that you've got an impossibly long list of places to see and there's no way you can fit all that into four weeks. It's something of a buzzkill, but it's also a test of one's planning mojo, where the women are separated from the girls.

Fortunately I'm up to the task.

I've gradually made peace with the fact that this trip will not be a leisurely slow-travel meander off the beaten path, but rather a tightly-controlled power-walk through the Top 10 Must-See Spots of Bangkok and Malaysia. Well, let me correct that: we will have lots of time in Bangkok, and I'm hoping that we'll get to sample the local flavor with Zoe and family. But the Malaysian portion of the program is getting a little crammed. And I was disappointed to learn that in order to fit everything in, we'll need to take several flights. It ups our carbon footprint significantly, and I much prefer the adventure of taking local ground transport. The good news is that low-cost carrier Air Asia has ridiculously cheap fares. And this is allowing us to visit lots of fun spots on the Peninsula as well as the states of Sabah and Sarawak on Malaysian Borneo.

The whirlwind itinerary is looking a little something like this:

- fly to Singapore - spend a day chilling out and recovering from jetlag
- take a bus to Malacca/Melaka - meet up with CouchSurfer Mr Yee Tea for a cooking lesson,
and surf with him for the night
- take a bus to Kuala Lumpur, fly from KL to BKK
- spend a week in Bangkok - hang out with Zoe and her family, hook up with Bruce & Anne,
celebrate Loy Krathong and see the sites in and around Bangkok
- fly back to Malaysia, spend 2-3 days in Penang with another CouchSurfing host
- take the bus to Kuala Lumpur and stay there for 2-3 days - hopefully participating in a
CouchSurfing potluck/meet-up
- fly Malaysian Borneo and do 3 days of diving around Semporna (Sipadan, Mabul, etc)
- take a bus to the Sepilok area and spend 2 days at a Kinabatangan homestay, with some sort
of jungle/river tour as well
- take the bus to Kota Kinabalu and crash there overnight
- fly to Kuching on the other end of Borneo, spend a few days with another CouchSurfer and
visit the local longhouses (possibly also Bako National Park)
- fly from Kuching to Singapore, and then back home

I've updated the map and calendar pages, and will be posting a more detailed Google map when we get back, to show exactly where we've been. In the meantime, the rest of the pre-trip to-do list awaits!

Posted by sonia at 4:45 PM | Link | 1 comment

23 October 2008
Mid-week culcha
Bread and puppets, Cirque and pho

This week we had the opportunity to attend two fun mid-week cultural events. It was a great reminder of the diversity of entertainment options right in our own backyard.

one of the characters from Bread & Puppets TheaterOn Tuesday night, we joined some friends at a performance of Bread and Puppets Theater. We weren't entirely sure what to expect, as the site is rather vague and nobody seemed to have any real information about the show. But the price (free) was right, as it happens I'm a fan of both puppets and bread, and when you go in with almost no expectations there's nowhere to go but up. Plus, you had me at "free."

I'm pleased to report that the show was AMAZING. The troupe at this performance consisted of eight people who alternately played ragtime instruments, marched around with flags, operated giant cardboard and papier-maché puppets, and danced on stilts. The subject matter was intensely political, which makes sense given BPT's roots in activist pacifism and participatory street theater. (You can find some historical information on the "Tour Schedule" page of their site... scroll down past the dates... poor usability but it is worth the effort!) The Tuesday night show had been advertised as the more "family-friendly" of BPT's Washington performances. So when things got a little heavy towards the end with a haunting piece about the war in Iraq, leaving the audience in contemplative silence, it was a bit of a surprise to hear the announcer plug the Wednesday show as "somewhat darker," and not as suitable for kids. But hey, I'm all about people exposing their kids to controversial subject matter as food for thought. I was totally encouraged that there were some kids in the theater when we went to see Bill Maher's "Religulous" a few weeks ago. Discussion and debate are not just for grownups.

Oh, and yes they did in fact serve bread at the end of the show! With some spectacularly garlicky aioli sauce. No vampire problems that night.

Cirque du Soleil - Journey of ManWednesday's entertainment was a bit more lighthearted. We're big fans of Cirque du Soleil, both the Vegas extravaganzas and the touring shows. When I discovered that "Journey of Man," the 1999 film featuring Cirque performances, was coming back to the IMAX theater at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum, I jumped at the chance to get tickets. I do love me some IMAX. And we don't get down to the Smithsonian complex nearly enough. As I exited the Metro at the Smithsonian stop, which drops you off in the middle of the National Mall, I enjoyed the stroll between the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building, with a lovely fall sunset as a backdrop. Somehow it never gets old to wander around among such powerful national symbols; after living in the DC area for almost two decades, I still get a bit of a rush. It's like being on a movie set.

And speaking of movie, the IMAX film was absolutely stellar. Filmed over a two-year period using Cirque performers from around the world, "Journey of Man" is a celebration of the stages of life from birth to death. The visual imagery is stellar, and the music is just as delicious. As icing on the cake it's narrated by Ian McKellan. Sitting in a darkened theatre surrounded by that Gandalf voice is always a good thing in my book. After the movie we chatted up Aba Kwawu, president of the PR firm that handles Cirque's DC runs. (She also had the fun job of handing out the door prizes while wearing a clown nose.) How cool would it be to work for the most kickass circus in the world?

We topped off the night by stopping for some pho on the way home. Unfortunately my favorite Pho 75 was closed for the night, but a block away Pho 50 was still open. (Why 75? Why 50? Why not a more creative name?) We had just enough time to gulp down a big bowl of the rich broth -- perfect eats for the increasingly chilly weather -- before they closed up shop. I used to be somewhat perplexed by the huge Vietnamese contingent in Falls Church, but now I just shut up and happily slurp my pho. Ten points to anyone who can tell me the story behind that inscrutable naming scheme, though...

Posted by sonia at 5:25 PM | Link | 1 comment

21 October 2008
What would you tell yourself?
C'mon, play the "what if" game!

A fasctinating discussion has been flourishing lately on CouchSurfing's Independent Women list, and I thought I'd fire it up here to see if y'all had any interesting comments to add.

The original question was:
"What if... you could go back in time and tell yourself something (besides the winning lottery numbers). What would you say?"

The original poster offered her own words of wisdom to herself at various ages. Lots of fabulous chix chimed in with their own thoughts, and here are mine:

jumpin the waves with Easy-E at BeltsvilleI'd tell my 6-yr-old self not to take everything so seriously, and that if you're able to laugh at yourself the rest of the world is not nearly so scary.

Christmas 1983... just entering my geek phaseI'd continuously tell my 13- to 18-yr-old self that geeks rule, and that not being the popular kid gives you much more strength and independence as an adult. Oh, and by the way, life is MUCH cooler after high school!

my college graduation... just happy to be outta there!I'd urge my 20-yr-old self to take that semester or year abroad, that the comfort & safety of the familiar will be there when you get back, although perhaps you won't need it nearly so much.

I'd tell my late-20s self to go for it, dream big, take those risks, but also have a financial safety net in case things don't work out exactly as planned.

the venerable Nana ZAnd I can't help but wonder what my 40- 50- or 60-yr-old self would tell the present me... I suspect it would have something to do with: things always work out for the best, even if it doesn't seem like it at the time; there are no easy answers and that's what keeps things interesting; and never lose the childlike sense of wonderment that comes from trying new things. To piggyback off that a bit, two things my now-98-yr-old grandmother has been telling us our whole lives: never stop learning, and keep your body as active as your mind. I think she's onto something... she made it to 98, after all.

What wisdom would you go back and tell yourself?

Posted by sonia at 12:10 PM | Link | 2 comments

15 October 2008
We're Going to Thailand! (and Malaysia!)
Time to dust off the passport... where are ya, old friend?

Ya gotta love it when a totally-unplanned-for plan comes together.

Sipadan photo courtesy Henry & TersiaIt all started when our expat friends Bruce & Anne, DC transplants living in Perth, mentioned they were going to be in Bangkok in mid-November. We'd been considering taking a short trip to SE Asia... not short by typical American vacation standards, but considerably shorter than the extended travel we'd been hoping to undertake. One month total, focusing primarily on Malaysia and possibly also Indonesia. Why those two countries? A number of reasons, but I have to admit that ever since I started researching the scuba diving off Malaysian Borneo, I've been hooked. Jacques Cousteau called Sipadan, a tiny island off the East Coast of Borneo, some of the best diving in the world. You can dive there pretty much year-round, and supposedly it's an amazing place to see large animals. There are also a plethora of dive sites on nearby islands Mabul and Kapalai. And, bottom line, how cool is it to casually say, "Oh, yeah, we'll be doing some diving in Malaysian Borneo next month"?

Zoe dahlingWe'd been seriously considering a one-month trip to this area, substituting Bangkok for Indonesia, when I found out one of my co-workers was going back to Thailand to visit family in November. The exceptionally-fabulous Zoe has been living in the US for some time now, but her mom still lives in Bangkok. She's goes back to visit occasionally, and I've seen pictures of the house. Suffice it to say, I'm planning to try to get adopted by Zoe's mom when we visit. Zoe offered that we could stay with her, as it turned out she would be there at the same time as Bruce & Anne. Sweeeeet.

Add to all this the fact that Loy Krathong, one of the biggest Thai holidays of the year, is also happening within this same window, and you have the makings of an insanely good time.

So, the general plan is to fly in and out of Singapore, since that's by far the cheapest hub in the region. (In case anyone's interested, I found the best fare on Vayama. I think the airlines are running scared because ticket prices seem to have dropped across the board.) We'll leave DC on November 5, the morning after the presidential election. And I fervently hope we leave on a note of celebratory elation due to an overwhelming Obama win, as opposed to a bitter hangover from drowning our sorrows after a McCain win. But I digress... We'll spend the week of Nov 9 in Bangkok, celebrating Loy Krathong and hopefully discovering some hidden gems only locals know about. Somewhere around Nov 18 we'll head south down the peninsula, stopping to visit whatever strikes our fancy. The last week of November and first week of December we'll spend time on Borneo, diving and hanging with orangutans and dodging headhunters and the like. We return to DC on December 4. And then, unfortunately, it's back to work the following week.

Stay tuned for more details as the plans evolve. This trip will be a little weird for me, as it's somewhere between a free-wheeling backpacker jaunt and a totally scripted type-A vacation. I hope to strike a balance somewhere in there! If anyone has any suggestions for must-see stuff in southern Thailand or Malaysia, do let me know.

Some of you may have noticed the little ChipIn widget in the sidebar. Taking a page from the Book of Joan, I've decided to ask for what I want for my birthday. (Just be glad I'm not declaring it a national holiday and announcing how many shopping days are left until November 6!) I've been wanting a better camera for some time now, so I thought I'd give an opportunity for folks to contribute towards this item. Many thanks to Beth at Wanderlust and Lipstick and Crystalicious for getting the ball rolling! The sidebar widget's a bit small and some of the text gets cut off. But anyone who chips in will get a postcard from Thailand or Malaysia. I'm planning to get a Nikon d40, which is a digital SLR that is a few generations behind the latest & greatest but has gotten consistently good reviews. If I get more than I need to buy the camera, the remainder will be donated to The Women's Center, a local DC charity that has been providing services to women, families, and the community for over 30 years.

Posted by sonia at 12:30 PM | Link | 4 comments
12 October 2008
Food for Thought
A quick round-up of tasty e-bites

There's been some good stuff in the blogosphere in the past week or two... seems like a good time to do a roundup post:

Divine Caroline's "Love This Site!" Awards lists a ton of quality blogs/sites, not to mention some familiar faces in the travel category. Browse the list, and feel free to vote if you find something you like. Nominations will be accepted until November 30, 2008 and winners will be announced in early December.

Nomadic Matt wrote a great article about How to Vote in the U.S. Election While Overseas. Whether you'll be traveling on the big day, or are just looking to avoid the lines by voting absentee, this piece has all the information you'll need to do your civic duty.

Hey, guess what, the economy's in the crapper! Shocking, I know. There have been a plethora of articles in the travel community encouraging us to nevermind the bad news, get out there and see the world. Here are a handful of my favorites:

* Almost Fearless - The Economy is Falling Apart, Should I Travel?
* Everything Everywhere - It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine
* Wanderlust and Lipstick - Eco (nomic) Travel

I heart Ira Glass! NPR's "This American Life" has done a fantastic podcast that explains the whole economic meltdown thing in plain English. Despite the cheeky title (Another Frightening Show About the Economy) it's actually pretty enlightening. Keep in mind that it's slightly outdated, as recent events have been spinning pretty fast. But it provides a good solid foundation for understanding what the *&^%! is going on.

I got another article published on Matador. It went up on Oct 3 but I only just now realized it (duh). Faithful readers will recognize familiar content, but it's packaged in a slightly different way from the blog entries: "24 Hours at Burning Man." As always, I appreciate any comments, Stumbles, Diggs, or whatever else you can do to help promote the piece!

And, finally, because we could all use a laugh in these troubled times:

election coverage

Posted by sonia at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments
07 October 2008
Everything Zen? I don't think so.
Vigilant on the road but careless at home

I had a thump-yourself-on-the-forehead moment last Friday night. We were out at a club with some friends, and when I got up to use the ladies' room I left my purse behind, not really thinking twice about it, figuring it would be watched after by the folks sitting in our small group. When I got back, the friends were gone, and so was the purse. I tried to stay calm as we scoured the club for our group. My logical brain attempted to drown out the panic by stating calmly and clearly that one of our peeps had grabbed it and taken it with them for safe keeping. My wallet, cell phone, car keys, house keys... all in good hands. Meanwhile my emotional brain kept drumming up worst case scenarios and shouting "Stupid! What were you thinking? You'd never do this while traveling!"

And that little voice, while a bit overwrought, is right. If I were in a foreign country or even another city, I'd never in a million years leave my valuables sitting unattended, ever. What's particularly ironic about this is that things are *not* particularly secure on the American homefront these days, especially if the hand-wringing daily news is to be believed. Regardless, there's something about being close to home that lulls me into a false sense of security. It got me thinking about other ways this happens:

* Crossing the street. Indie Travel Podcast just did a funny (and informative) episode about this. I tend to be one of those pedestrians who quickly looks both ways and then darts out into traffic, against the light or in the middle of the block or whatever suits my need to get from point A to point B. But in some countries this behavior may bring about bodily harm or a huge fine. According to ITP it can cost you 200 Euros in Austria! It's not something to be taken lightly.

* Giving out personal info. While traveling, I would never dream of giving out my hostel or hotel address to a complete stranger. Yet a few weeks ago I got a brisk slap of reality when our Craigslist rental ad got hijacked by some spammers in Nigeria. (Yes, really. How retro! How very 1996!) At first I couldn't figure out why someone would take the time to scrape my content and one picture of the outside of our house, list it at half the price, and change the email address. Then when people started showing up with further instructions about wiring money to a Lagos bank account, I finally got it. It's my own damn fault for including our address with the original post. I stupidly thought "What's the harm?" Well, there ya go, question answered. Fortunately I think I was able to get Craigslist to take down the spamalicious ad before any really stupid people got bilked out of their cash. At least I hope so.

Back to the purse-snatching incident, it did turn out that one of our friends took it along with her when she moved to a different part of the club. Why she didn't bother to wait till I got back from the bathroom to migrate, I'll probably never know. But all's well that ends well. And I think the lesson here is that it's time to kick off my comfy slippers and hit the road to slough off some of that false sense of security.

What are some ways you take things for granted in your comfort zone?

Posted by sonia at 12:00 AM | Link | 1 comment
02 October 2008
How Well Do You Know Your World?

I don't have anything profound to say this week, so I thought I'd share a fun little time-waster. I found this widget on the TravelPod site some months back. It's basically a geography quiz that gets progressively harder with each level. I did OK, for a dumb Amerkan. I will warn you that it's slightly addictive!


brought to you by TravelPod, the Web's First Travel Blog ( A TripAdvisor Media Network partner ) 


Posted by sonia at 12:30 PM | Link | 0 comments