Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Booty Call

Ever since we got to Bali we've been working to control our urges when it comes to buying the crap out of all of the knock-off and pirated goods we've come across. From Billabong t-shirts to fake Zippos to Fau-lexes to Oakleys, Lonely Planet guidebooks, DVDs and CD and on and on... With the exception of some real artwork that we got in Bali and a few $3 t-shirts, we've kept it pretty well in control. That is until we got to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. From everything you read in the guidebooks this is the capital of copies. The number one for knock-offs. The front runner of forgeries.

We had heard about the pirated DVDs, CDs and software that go for next to nothing. I got the urge to pop into one of the DVD/CD stores while we were wandering around the streets near out guesthouse in Saigon one night. I was skeptical at first. On a previous pop-in to a shop in Bali, the Valkyrie DVD that was for sale, prior to the movie even being released, while of good quality only had the first chapter in English. The rest of the movie was actually in German, much to the contradiction of the shopkeeper and the DVD packaging. No, really, sir. That's not English. Whatever, that was Bali, this is Vietnam – they take this pirating stuff seriously here!

So in we went to browse the new release wall. Wow, look at that – I don't remember half of these movies even being released yet. The concerns with the pirated movies, aside from them being “pirated” (hey, when in Rome, eh?) are that they could be in a foreign language, they could have been filmed by some dude who snuck into a theater with his tripod and a camcorder or of course they may just not work. One of the guys working in the shop even let us know that we shouldn't buy Inkheart or one other movie as they were filmed in the theater and weren't actual copies of the original DVD. Fortunately this shop had four TVs and DVD players so that you could test all of the movies you were interested in buying. We quickly had an arm load so I went over and started checking them out. Much to my initial surprise, everything worked great. So while I tested away, Courtney turned one arm load into several. Round one racked up close to 60 DVDs for somewhere around $50. Sweet!

Of course now that we were seasoned film buyers our antenna were up and eyes open for more opportunities. Shop two came a few days later and jackpot, this place had box sets. Yes! They have Lost Seasons 1-4!! We're back in action! Round two rolled up half a dozen box sets of our favorite and soon to be favorite TV shows along with a few more movies. I think stop brought in another 30 or so discs. On our last day in town we wandered through one of the local markets in search of a dust mask to wear during our Mekong Delta motorcycle tour. But hey, what's that? A DVD stand? Ok, I think the entire Sapranos series and every single James Bond movie ever made should be bought for $15. Just to round out the collection... We found 40 or so CDs that we “needed” to add to the collection too.

Ok, we got the loot. But crap, it's heavy. And since the mini laptop doesn't have a DVD player, we don't actually have a way to watch them. Time to find the post office. This is where our new found elation over discount goods starts to go downhill. “No DVD!” says the man at the post office counter. After a bit of further inquiry and additional confusion, it was clear that for some reason?!?! they do not allow you to mail home the knock-off DVDs. Good thing our crack research department caught onto that one before we had our stack fulls bought and paid for. Ok, I guess we'll just have to carry them for a bit.

On to Cambodia we will head, then straight to the Fed Ex office. As we rolled up to the airport in Saigon, we wondered if we were going to run into any issues getting through Vietnam or Cambodian customs. The answer would be yes, we would. Quickly we check in and get the bags on their way to the plane. Our big mistake, we've decided, is lingering at the adjacent airport map to find the restaurants instead of getting as far away from our bags as possible. Because out comes one of the customs officials to bring us back for a security check on our bags. Sweeeeeeet.

You have DVD?
Take out.
Oooohhhhhh. That way to many.
Copy. Too many. You pay fine.
Ok. Here.
Pack your bags. Have a nice day.
Let's go.

The unabridged version of this conversation had much analysis of the “officials” document (which was in Vietnamese, no English version available for some reason) explaining the rules about pirated DVDs and Courtney's defiance that our “fine” was way too much. Pretty sure the $30 went into the guys pocket, but hey, we still have our new DVD collection in hand. Let's see if we have better luck getting them home from Cambodia. Movie night at our place when we get home!

And no, we did not actually get Booty Call, though it was one of Jamie Foxx's finest 90 minutes. Right up there with Ray in my opinion.

March 12th Edit: The handy UPS tracking number has at least let us know that our package home with said DVDs has made it into the US. Let's hope the calls that my brother and Eleissa are having with US Customs officers about “contraband materials” that are being sent to their house are going well...

April 18th Edit: Well, apparently today was D-Day. It would appear that UPS has destroyed our package for fear of counterfeit DVDs being released on the public and creating chaos. We are so f'n pissed that the pretty much ignored our requests to remove the questionable goods and send on the rest of the package. Here come the nasty-grams!! I guess I'd better re-up my Fed Ex and DHL accounts. Anyone know a good lawyer?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Driving Around the World - ... and the Ugly

When we got to Vietnam we moved back over to the “correct” side of the road. This unfortunately did not make things easier. The concentration of scooters now on the road increased ten-fold. Giant 8-way roundabouts were now a part of the driving equation (“Look kids. Parliament. Big Ben.”) and traffic laws seemed even less apparent. And going back to the versatility of a scooter – holy crap! You can fit a family of six on a scooter. You can carry a years worth of groceries from Costco on a scooter. You can fit your new flat screen, building supplies, your noodle restaurant, a few bails of sugarcane or your wedding party on a scooter. Those things are amazing. My favorite was a scooter with two giant tractor tires on the back that were so heavy, the front wheel of the scooter was off the ground. Too bad I didn't get a picture of that. And it's not only the “things” that they manage to pile on the scooters, but the people. It's totally normal to see families of four riding on a single bike together. We've seen up to five, and heard many reports of six. Not to mention two adults plus a 20 kg backpack.

No way were we going to try and drive while we were in Ho Chi Minh. It's just way too crazy. We did hop on the backs of two bikes and do some day tours with a few local guides which was totally awesome! You really have to put your faith in your driver though, because if you start worrying about all of the horn honking, bumper dodging and close calls, you're not going to have an enjoyable trip. In the three days we spent on the back of the motorcycles, I don't think we ever had a really close call. Once we got to the less populated areas of Vietnam we had a go at renting a bike. It was still quite nerve racking at the beginning. You have to learn to totally ignore, while also pay complete attention to every horn honk around you. We've found that drivers in this part of the world have an involuntary reflex of their thumbs that honks the horn, approximately on pace with one's breathing. Not like at home when you have to be close to collision or really pissed to use your horn – oh no. In this part of the world it's used to say “Going straight. Going left. Going right. Speeding up. Slowing down. Sitting here still. Passing. Not passing. Honking. Hello. Here I come.” and whatever else you can think of. It's a condition that you have to experience to get used to. And while maddening at first, and for quite awhile after that, you somehow get used to it. Then again, we've never seemed to get used to the semi coming up behind us and blasting his semi horn. That still freaks us the f out. And only makes Courtney's near-deafness worse so that she hears me even less of the time. Uh-huh.

Other fun facts about driving in Vietnam – the drag race starts from stop lights. I know I mentioned it before, but here it's quite literal. The have separate, smaller sets of traffic lights for the scooters and they have timers that count down the time to the next red or green light. So when you're stopped, you start revving the engine and letting off the break about when the timer gets to three seconds, then play dodge-'em through the crisscrossing traffic that tried to make it through their green-to-red lights as they counted down to zero. Also, there are an abundance of hammock bars along most of the roads. What are these? Easy – just as they sound. Little cafes and eateries set up with mostly hammocks to lounge in, right along the side the road. You stop in, park the bike, lay back, have a coffee and relax for a while. We quickly came to find that these are a welcome break from the “numb bum” that you get after about an hour on the road. Much better than a plastic chair. We're totally getting more hammocks when we get home.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Driving Around the World - The Good, the Bad...

We think we have this driving thing all down pat. We can drive, drink a Starbucks, eat a scone, send a text message and veer across three lanes of traffic to make our exit all at the same time with no problem. Then we went on this trip and things started to get all crazy on the roads. It started right away in New Zealand where the steering wheel is on the wrong damn side of the car and you drive on the opposite side of the road. Ok, we can do this, just take it slow. My biggest problem was getting used to the position your body occupies in the road. At home, you're somewhere in the left side of the lane as you make your way down the road. That does not translate well when you're sitting in the right hand side of the car, as I would tend to drift to the left to adjust my body position and consequently start hitting the “wake up jackass – you're running off the road” warning bumps. That and repeatedly hitting the windshield wiper lever instead of the turn signal seemed to be the biggest challenges. Six weeks later though, we were doing just fine.

Ernie P. Dodger

Australia brought no new major challenges. Just toll roads that you don't really know are toll roads unless you happen to spot one of the miniature signs as you are searching wide-eyed for your exit, rolling through Melbourne at 100 kph. Their toll roads are extra fancy there. Registrations for cars are put in the front corner of the dash, so as you whiz under the overpass that is loaded with cameras and sensors, they take a photo, id your vehicle and bill your account. Fortunately you can go online and pay the tolls fairly quickly and easily. But make sure you do it within the three days you're allotted or you start racking up fines. Sweet.

The Red Rocket

Bali was the same in that you're on the wrong side of the car and road. Different in the fact that there is nothing fancy, sophisticated or “ahead of the game” having to do with driving. Lanes, red lights, speed limits, seat belts, seats and all other rules seem to not really apply. The two lane road, once you get to a red light, turns into six lanes as people ready themselves for the drag race start. Of course, the one day that we rent a car I pull to the side of the road so that Courtney can run into a store across the street and a motorcycle cop blips his siren at me to get moving. Why they gotta pick on the foreigner? In addition to the apparent lack of any traffic procedure there are now also hordes of motorcycles. Or more appropriately what we would refer to as scooters. They're everywhere, they run through any space they can fit through, they beep their horns at everything, and they're used as U-Hauls and minivans when needed. The amount of people and cargo you can fit on a scooter will boggle your mind.

No name, sorry buddy.

While we were in Malaysia we were on islands where no cars where allowed or in forests with no roads, so not much to report from there. The bus drivers do like to treat the highways as their own personal Daytona though. And when might has right, most people get the hell out of the way.

To be continued...

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Things to do on the freeway when you're bored

Ya know, I think I remember Firestone getting in a lot of trouble for this kind of thing. You know - you're flying down the highway at 100 kph when all of a sudden there's a lot of loud thumping, the ride gets really shaky, you hear loud prayers from the passenger's seat, swearing from the driver's seat... You pull over and the tread of your right rear tire is beyond shredded, looking like a few M-80s were strategically placed inside. I'm talking blown the F up! That was us the other day as we made our way from Amsterdam to Harlingen in northern Holland.

Fortunately we were just coming to an exit so we were able to pull off to the side of the road with a fair amount of room to change the tire. I donned my safety vest, threw up the caution triangle behind us, Courtney flipped on the hazards and off to work we went. Luckily the last owner was nice enough to leave the jack and lug nut wrenches in the van so we made pretty quick work of things. The hardest part really was getting the spare out of its rack. The bolts holding it under the car were nicely bent to shit (thank you again previous owner) so sans socket wrenches, the Leatherman was put to work. While the wrench aspect of the pliers on the Leatherman worked, I have to say it was not ideal. That took a while.

So with the spare back on (and in a time frame that the dad from A Christmas Story or any Earnhardt Racing team would be proud of, I might add) we made our way a few K up the highway to the closest town. After three different tire shops we finally found one that had the tires we needed in stock and could actually put them on that day. With an added big thanks to the boys at Profile Tire for staying past closing time to put them on. We ended up having to get two new rear tires as the left one was fraying as well and looking like it was ready to blow soon. So a sweet 170 Euro later we were back on the road.

A few more grey hairs, a few less dollars in our pockets, a bit more roadside emergency experience under our belts, a few more prayers to the Big Guy made in our good name and another good adventure to tell about. Let's hope this is the last major breakdown for poor old Floyd.

That's flatter than flat.

Like my safety vest?

You can almost see all the way through it.

Head mechanic Courtney!

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Land of Excess

Too much toothpaste...

Too much mayo...

Too much fun!

Welcome to Amsterdam.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Just so you're not confused...

Yes, the blog posting has been, how do you say... inconsistent? I guess that's appropriate. So in an effort to alleviate any confusion, here's a bit of a recap of the trip so far. I think we blogged pretty well up through Malaysia or so, but then it went doooooooown hill. Anyhoo...

What you probably know:
New Zealand for 6 weeks (probably our favorite so far)
Australia for 6 weeks (possibly our least favorite so far)
Bali for 3 weeks or so (loved it, wished we had more time)
Singapore for a little under a week (another big city)
Malaysia for about 3 weeks (loved it too, wished we had more time)

What you probably don't know:
Vietnam for 2 weeks (loved it, can't wait to get back, damn you expired visa!)
Cambodia for 3 weeks (super hot, super temples, and our first real "hitting a wall with travelling" experience)
Back to Vietnam for 5 more weeks (loved it again, but could have done with one less week)
China for a 1 1/2 weeks (amazing - stayed with Murphy at her place in Guangzhou the entire time - sooooooooo needed this)
London for 1 week (enchanting)

And now we've been bouncing around Holland, France, Belgium, back to Holland and soon to France again since early May. You'll actually be able to read about all this though. Promise.

Selfie update: Cruising around on our new bikes in the de Hoge Veluwe National Park outside of Arnhem, Holland.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

We'll stick to the frites and waffles...

Seven Belgian beers. Seven cool labels. One that was actually worth a shit.


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Metal Health Will Drive You Mad!!

Ok, we downloaded this movie and unfortunately it crapped out after about 40 minutes, but in those 40 minutes it was shaping up to already become one of my favorites. So I guess I'm going out on a limb by seeing less than half of it, but I will anyway.

Go see Anvil – The Story of Anvil. It is very Spinal Tap-esque, but in my opinion turned up to 12. Check it out.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Mind the Gap – Bangers & Mash - Sunshine

Time frame reference - Early May. Ya, we know...

All three things that are easily related to London. Well maybe not all of them, but I guess we lucked out. We really only had one day of grey, drizzly weather, but even that wasn't so bad. After the 13 hour red-eye from Hong Kong we were lucky enough to have the opportunity to really get to know London's Heathrow Airport. For what was probably the third time in the past month, I had managed to leave a painting we bought in Vietnam on our transport. I think I've now covered plane, train and automobile. Of course the realization came as soon as we cleared customs and were all the way through security. What this meant is that we had a cool three hours to hang out in one of the coffee shops, pray that the kind cleaning crew from Cathay Pacific actually found and turned in our painting and that the airline was able to get it into the hands of their friendly ticketing agents. Fortunately for us all of that happened. I am no longer responsible for the well-being of the painting...

I have to say, London has enchanted us. Courtney has been here before, back in 2001 with Bolton, but this is my first time. I don't know if it's the just the magic of my first European city or if it really is this charming, but every street we walked down has been so full of character. We got in early Friday morning and basically walked all over the city until we left early Thursday morning. We took the tube and buses all over town which were very easy to use, especially when you get one of their pre-paid Oyster cards that grant you cheaper tickets plus the ability to just zoom through the gates with the simple tap of your wallet instead of stopping to actually buy a ticket.

We hit damn near all of the big touristy things to see and do. Day one got us to Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Parliament, Trafalgar Square, the National Portrait Gallery, the London Eye, Westminster Abbey, St. James's Park and of course some room temperature, British cask ales to finish off the day. Just walking around, seeing all of these incredibly beautiful sites that you have read about in books your entire life is a bit enchanting. I was loving it.

The next day took us on a wonderful, early morning (damn you jet lag) wander through Soho and the unfortunate realization that getting to see a Premier League soccer game was not going to happen. With tickets totally sold out online, our only options were Craigslist, ticket sites or other “discount” ticket shops. Too bad all of these sellers were calling for at least 100 pounds a person. As much as I was looking forward to a game, been dreaming of going, been praying to find cheap tickets... $300 for a game is just too much, especially when we're attempting to manage a budget. We were both disappointed (yes, Courtney was excited for the game too) but we found a more reasonable second place and went to the West End production of Wicked. We got tickets for the Saturday matinĂ©e show and it really was fantastic.

Post show was a trip over to Harrod's, the insanely huge department store with a parking lot that looked like the most luxurious auto dealer I'd ever seen. Meibachs, Porches, Ferraris – oh my! Just from the cars we've seen in this town, no matter where we've been, you can see that there is lots of money here. The trip through Harrod's didn't even get past the first floor, but hey, that's where the food court was. Now describing it simply as a food court is such an injustice. Sushi to baked goods, caviar to a Willy Wonka-esque candy room, fine wines, coffees and teas to fancy meats and cheeses, and for good (or bad, depending on how you look at it) measure, a Krispy Kream. It was an interesting contrast in that next to the hot food counter which was very good looking and quite reasonably priced were the baluga caviars going for 1,000 pounds an ounce. I don't think Courtney's mouth closed once as we slowly rolled by all of the luxurious displays full of goodies. I'm pretty sure she would have been okay with sacrificing a month of traveling for the opportunity to completely blow up the “food court”. Next time Honey, next time.

Sunday brought us back down to the River Thames for a visit to the Tower of London, a little culture at the Tate Modern Museum (nutso modern “art”, in my opinion), the Tower Bridge and many a pint at a local pub while watching the Chelsea – Arsenal game.

Greenwich was next on the agenda which offered a nice wander through Greenwich Park, but not a whole lot more. A trip up to Notting Hill the next day brought us some very respectable Mexican food but no Hugh Grant or Julia Roberts sightings. Oh well. Both areas were very charming and fun to walk through with lots of cute shops and such. Not a whole lot happened in either spot though. On Tuesday night though, we were able to see a play at Shakespeare's Globe Theater, down on the the River. We saw Frontline, a very racy play about intersecting lifestyles on the streets of London. Pretty entertaining but above all, the venue was amazing. Three levels of open air, in-the-round seating, all built in a very classic style. To see an actual Shakespeare play there (Romeo & Juliet is usually playing) would be fantastic.

Our last day in town actually kept us closest to home. We walked around Camden, the area where our hostel was. (Palmer's Lodge – very nice place if you're in town.) Again, another neighborhood that was full of charm and very pleasant to just wander around, grab a bite and get a view of the city from one of its highest peaks, Hampstead Heath.

I have to say, I hope the magic of this place isn't limited to London. I'm so excited to get out and see more of Europe. I know there are going to be so many more amazing places. And it's nice to feel excited and re-energized about being back on the road. Taking nothing away from South East Asia, we were both glad to get out of there, but we'll definitely go back. But for now, it's off to Holland to find the used VW campervan of our dreams that we'll call home for the next who-knows-how-long. See you out on the road. We'll be that broken down looking van going 35 in the right hand lane of the autobahn. Try not to cream us as you hit the on-ramp at 120 miles per hour.