Category Archives: Travel

On the Indigo Trail: with the Black H’mong in NW Vietnam

"The village of Ly Lao Chi"

The village of Ly Lao Chi, near Sapa in northwest Vietnam

By Alison Bate

The Latin name trips off his tongue easily.

“Have you seen any strobilanthes cusia – the indigo plant? Or know anyone who makes the indigo dye here,” a boisterous French guy called out as I wandered by a street café.

Bemused, I joined Jean-Louis Dulaar for some of the local bitter green tea, and gave him the number of my homestay owner, Mr. Hoa, who spoke good English.

“No, not Tavan, but in the next village, people make the dye,” Mr. Hoa told him.

We were in the village of Tavan, about seven kilometres down the mountain from Sapa, in northwest Vietnam. I had a few days off work so had caught an overnight train and minibus from Hanoi to Sapa. It was full of ethnic minority women relentlessly trying to sell their handicraft, and I couldn’t wait to get out of town.

“You rich, me poor. You buy my stuff. Why you not buy? You monkey,” they would chant.

After buying an exotic hanging from one of the few polite women, I escaped on a Xe-om taxi (hug a motorbike) to Tavan, a beautiful little village surrounded by rice fields at the bottom of a beautiful valley. I spent the night at Mr. Hoa’s homestay, nursing a cold and enjoying some healing shots of rice wine.

Jean-Louis Dulaar with one of the local villagers in Lao Chi

The next morning, I ran into Jean-Louis Dulaar, who turned out to be a French artist who goes around the world learning local methods of using natural plants to make dyes and then creates his own paintings.

“What are you doing today?” Jean Louis asked me.

“Not much.”

Zoom zoom. Two minutes later, I joined him on the back of his rented motorbike heading for the village of Lao Chai. There, we got off and stumbled around trying to find someone who understood what he wanted.

Continue reading

Friday night in Hanoi

Kids watching the flag-folding ceremony at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hanoi

Kids watching the flag-folding ceremony at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hanoi

It’s Friday night in Hanoi and the Mausoleum is like a gigantic playground.

Barefoot toddlers and pre-schoolers run around in circles, dads hoist kids on their shoulders, and moms guard strollers, teddy bears and surplus clothes.

Shrieks of laughter fill the night air, a pleasant change from the impatient beep-beeps in the background from motorbikers on nearby Hung Vuong Street

The Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, which holds the embalmed remains of the former president, is lit up in pinkish red, like an empty opera stage just before a performance.

Kids and parents playing at the Mausoleum on Friday night.

Kids and parents playing at the Mausoleum on Friday night.

The field in front is also floodlit, adding to the dramatic air, and criss-crossed with paths full of young people walking in T-shirts, shorts and capris and the occasional older woman wearing loose pyjamas.

Suddenly a whistle blows and the crisply-pressed white uniformed guards move into action, gently clearing the square of toddlers and their parents and pushing the crowd back into the grassy area.

But they don’t leave. On a path parallel to the square, the kids sit down and their parents stand behind them, all in a row, all clearly waiting for something to happen.

Martial music begins to play, and the adults sing along. Then from the left, a troop of the white uniformed guards marches three-by-three across the square toward the giant flag in front o the mausoleum. The flag is slowly lowered to triumphal music and folded away by one of the guards.

The crowd slowly drifts over to the motorbike park, and dad and mom drive off with their little kids squashed between them on the back of the motorbike. The square empties quickly and Ho Chi Minh is left in peace again.

(Posted April 17, 2012 by Alison Bate)

Rowing with his feet and other Vietnam water scenes

Pix man rowing with his feet

Local rowing with his feet in Lan Ha Bay, Vietnam (Pix by Alison Bate, March 2012)

Colorful boat in Lan Ha Bay, Vietnam

Colorful boat in Lan Ha Bay, Vietnam (Pix by Alison Bate, March 2012)

Travelling in Lan Ha Bay, near Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Travelling in Lan Ha Bay, near Ha Long Bay, Vietnam (Pix by Alison Bate, March 2012)

A quick break from kayaking in Lan Ha Bay (Pix Alison Bate)

Flying the flag in Cat Ba harbor, Vietnam

Flying the flag in Cat Ba harbor, Vietnam (Pix by Alison Bate, March 2012)

A fine mist filled the bay, as we went kayaking near Cat Ba Island in northeast Vietnam. Most people go to see the spectacular vertical mountains dropping into the sea, but actually I spent more time looking at the boats.

Cat Bay harbor itself is full of colorful wooden boats flying the Vietnamese flag, and in Lan Ha Bay, I enjoyed seeing this guy rowing with his feet. It was also a lot less touristy than nearby Ha Long Bay.

We also saw loads of fish farms, each with a little hut on it and a long pier guarded by yapping dogs.They guard the crop while the family is out fishing, often overnight, and seem to harvest lots of mussels and other shellfish and catch giant jellyfish.

(Posted by Alison Bate, Marhc 24, 2012)

Sufi dancers in Omdurman

Pix Sufi dancers in Omdurman,

Sufi dancers in Omdurman, 2011 (Picture: Alison Bate)

 

 

Pix Sufi dancers in Omdurman, Sudan

Sufi dancers in Omdurman, Sudan (Pix: Alison Bate)

It seemed an indelicate way to arrive at a religious ceremony. We bumped in, out and around gravestones set in desert scrub, before pulling up in the minivan in front of a huge circle of men in white robes.

The pounding beat got louder as we walked to the edges of the circle and saw what they were all watching: green, red and leopard-clothed mystics swirling and dancing in a hypnotic fashion in the middle of the circle.

Their faces told the story: blissful is the only way to describe it. The bumpy ride forgotten, all things forgotten but the compelling dancing, chanting and smiling faces.

It was Friday evening in Omdurman and I’d never seen the Sufi dancers before, despite living in Sudan for five months in 2007. At the time it seemed too touristy, and a long way to go on my one day off a week. Big mistake. Continue reading

Sudan suffers separation pains

Pix ofPix of Khartoum taken from Omdurman

The old and the new: view of Khartoum from Omdurman (Pix: Alison Bate).

By Alison Bate

The capital of Sudan feels a little lost and empty these days.

The distinctive Dinkas – the impossibly tall, thin Southerners – and their fellow compatriots have mostly left Khartoum for their new homeland and the deadline for the rest to leave is just months away.

After April 9, 2012, any southerners remaining will become stateless or, if they are lucky, have to get work visas like other foreigners.

The new country of South Sudan, born on the 9th of July, has taken with it the biggest chunk of Sudan’s oil revenues and Khartoum seems totally unprepared for the loss of all that money.

It will have to find new ways to make an income and meanwhile the residents of Khartoum and its sister cities of Omdurman and Khartoum North are hurting as prices shoot upward.

“Everybody want to leave Sudan. Why you come to Sudan from Canada?” asked one resident, only half-joking.

The price of a sheep shot up to between 400 and 700 Sudanese Pounds (SP) for the Haj earlier this year – the religious occasion when every family buys a sheep.

Translating this into US dollars is not even easy, as there’s a huge gap between the official exchange rate and what you can get on the black market. Continue reading

10 travel tips for Sudan

Kassala resident near the Gash river

Kassala resident near the Gash river (Pix: Alison Bate)

1. Take lots of US dollars in cash, in fact everything you’ll need, as none of your western ATMs or credit cards will be accepted.

2. Change money on the black market, not in banks or official exchanges. As of Dec.1, 2011 you’ll get about 4.2 Sudanese pounds to $1 US on the black market, compared with only about 2.75 SP to the dollar officially.
To change money in downtown Khartoum, the moneychangers’ area is near the Al Kabir mosque, on the northeast side, where they also sell cellphones, ones that likely fell off the back of a truck. Just wander along and you’ll hear plenty of murmurings of: “Change dollars?”

3. If you are travel light or backpacking, don’t bother with a big towel (you’ll dry quickly without one) or lots of soap, toothpaste etc (all readily available and cheap).

4. If you like reading, bring a few books or your e-Reader as pickings are pretty slim for English books, and more likely of the deadly “Elements Of English Grammar” kind.

5. If you want to meet up with local people, everyone uses a cellphone in Sudan and they’re really useful. A cheap cellphone is about $10 US, then pick up a Zain SIM card for about 5 SP ($1.25 US) and a 10 SP top-up card (about $2.50). Continue reading

Coffee and lamb fright in Kassala

By Alison Bate

I went to look at the striking Taka Mountains yesterday, but as is the way in Sudan, never quite made it, sidetracked by friendly people at the street cafes.

Ethiopian coffee, shown here in Kassala, East Sudan, is drunk with ginger and uses grass to filter the coffee.

I’m in a cute little town called Kassala, a long, eight-hour bus ride east of Khartoum. The bare mountains rise up suddenly out of the desert and pulled me toward them. I was heading there when I wandered by a store selling all kinds of luscious desserts. I bought a Sudanese baklava, which you order by weight (so I couldn’t just get one), and sat down to eat them. Continue reading

Khartoum at dawn

I ‘ve just arrived in Khartoum after a four-year gap, and this morning between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m., it was pretty magical.

Pix Khartoum shepherds

Khartoum shepherds feed their flock in the early morning

After a sleepless, jetlagged night, I went up to the rooftop of the Bougainvilla Guest House, where I’m staying.

It was still dark, the moon and stars were out, and a cool breeze swept across the patio. Four or five mosques started competing with each other, and the mullahs’ prayers bounced all around the darkened city.

I stayed up there until the skies began to lighten, and the sun landed on the concrete buildings below and little birds with fanned tails flitted around the dirt streets. Khartoum by day is a hot and dusty city, so it was neat to see it this way.

No one in the city seemed in a hurry to wake up. A donkey cart and driver ambled across the dirt square below, and the air smelled of burnt sand. I wandered along one of the streets, where a few sleepy people were heading to work.

And after breakfast I’ll have all the fun of sorting out registering with the police and getting a SIM card.

(Posted Sat. Nov.19, 2011 by Alison Bate)

Selecting tech toys for my trip to Sudan

I can pack a backpack or suitcase for a trip in under an hour, but deciding what tech toys to take is another ballgame altogether.

I spent a ridiculous amount of time researching cellphones and agonizing about whether to take my beloved Macbook with me.

I’m meeting various friends in Khartoum, and everyone uses cellphones there. But of course, many Canadian cellphones (sigh) – including my own – don’t work outside North America. The cellphone with my Telus account doesn’t even have a SIM card, and I foolishly gave away my old unlocked FIDO phone, which would work overseas. I toyed with buying one of Future Shop or 7/11 ‘s unlocked phones, but all the online research drained my limited shopping energy.

So while in Bahrain on a second tedious eight-hour stopover, I bought a $27 US Nokia 1616. Hopefully, it’ll work with a Sudanese SIM card. I’m sure it will – the Sudanese seem to do cellphones better than Canada.

As for my MacBook, I couldn’t face worrying about losing it (and all my pix and personal data). So two days before leaving, I bought a cheapo HP 10.1” Intel Atom N455 Netbook for $249 plus tax from Nanaimo’s Future Shop. Asked them to load Skype and VLC to save time, and set up the Arabic version too. My friend David kindly installed a spare copy of Microsoft Office, and I was all set to go.

My other toy – definitely an indulgence – is a Zoom H4Ns digital recorder that cost $319 plus tax from Tom Lee’s store in downtown Vancouver. It replaces my fancy Sony minidisc recorder, which is basically obsolete after four years of minimal use, and had annoying proprietary software that never worked. The new Zoom seems to download MP3s easily via a USB port. Thank you, Zoom.

And, of course, when I got to Khartoum (just last night) all I wanted to do was write longhand in a ruled notebook . . .

(Posted Saturday, Nov.19, 2011 by Alison Bate)

10 questions about life on a containership

Pix CSCL Felixstowe

Photo of the 800-foot CSCL Felixstowe by Philip Gilston

May 30, 2011

By Alison Bate

While surfing the internet, I ran across this photo of a ship I sailed on a few years ago (see above).

It brought back fond memories of sailing across the Pacific on the CSCL Felixstowe. I got asked a ton of questions about the trip from L.A. to Shanghai. Here, in no particular order, are some of them along with my answers:

1. What was the food like?

Wonderful, if you like curries. Fortunately, I do. Chief cook Ignacio (Nick) Villanueva had an exhausting job, cooking for 25 of us every day, helped only by messman Lorenzo (Laurence) Ramos.

Nick often ended up cooking separate meals for the Indian officers and Filipino crew. Indian officers don’t eat beef and some don’t eat pork, while the Filipinos didn’t like spicy Indian curries.

A typical lunch for the Indian officers included a freshwater fish called Tilapia, potato and cauliflower curry, rice, salad and melon. Meanwhile, the Filipinos had grilled beef, rice, bitter gourd and melon.

On Sundays, Jina Noronha, wife of first officer Rodney Noronha, often helped out by cooking biriani for the Indian officers, along with raita, a delicious yoghurty dip.

“We measure our time left in birianis. I’ve got two birianis left,” said Capt. Alfred Gomez, who was signing off shortly.

2. Did you drink every night with the Captain?

Capt. Gomez was a staunch Catholic who discouraged drinking and held Sunday prayer meetings with rip-roaring singing to boost crew morale and camaraderie.

“I see it as the only way. Instead of getting soaked in alcohol, you are getting soaked in God’s word,” he said. To this day, I can’t hear “This is the day that the Lord has made” without feeling emotional.

Rum rations for the crew are long gone, replaced by strict anti-alcohol and drug policies. Although beer was allowed off-duty, it was quietly frowned upon. I drank three beers while on board, and even then felt guilty.

The best tales from the captain’s table came during lunchtime, when the captain, chief engineer Anil Sharma and third officer Praveen Prabhu traded stories.

The Suez Canal is nicknamed the Marlboro Canal, and if you don’t pay the pilot with cartons of cigarettes, they won’t move the ship. One time the captain finally got a pilot who said he didn’t take cigarettes.

“I’ll just have coffee,” he said, then but then promptly added tea, butter and a huge list of other demands.

“Better you take the cigarettes,” said the captain, finally.

3. Was it risky, a woman sailing with all those men?

Rodney and Annette Noronha on the bridge

No, they were wonderful! And I wasn’t not the only woman on board. When I boarded, first officer Rodney Noronha was waiting to greet me with his wife, Jina, and six-year-old daughter, Annette. Jina and Annette had been sailing with Rodney for the last four months, and on and off ships since Annette was a toddler. The wife and two-year-old son of second engineer Ravi Singh also sailed with us.

The two wives, two kids and myself were all Supernumeraries, an archaic-sounding word also applied to actors who appear on stage but have no lines to speak. Pretty accurate, in this case. I was the Fifth Supernumerary.

4. How long did the trip take?

The ship was pretty fast, with a cruising speed of 24 knots (nautical miles an hour), so it only took 11 days to sail from LA/Long Beach to Qingdao in northeast China.

We sailed the Great Circle route, skirting the Aleutian Islands off Alaska before arching across the Pacific to Qingdao – more than 5,800 nautical miles in all.

A Super Hurricane northeast of the Philippines delayed us a day and at Qingdao, we hit fog. So we arrived in Shanghai at dawn 13 sailing days (14 days by date) after leaving Long Beach.

5. Did you get seasick?

Streaming across the Pacific

Streaming across the Pacific

I used to throw up regularly on yachts crossing the English Channel. Fortunately, the CSCL Felixstowe rode the waves much better than a small yacht.

The worst times came southeast of Japan, as we hit the aftermath of a Super Hurricane called Dianmu. That night I was lying in my bunk sweating and headachy as the ship pitched back and forth like a bucking bronco. Winds at the time reached Force 8, but we missed the worst of the hurricane.

6. Can I sail on a containership, too?

Containerships don’t usually take passengers, so I was very lucky. The crew is too busy most of the time to look after passengers and there are also insurance complications.

Bulk carriers have more leisurely schedules, and are more likely to take passengers, but they are still not cheap. Several companies cater to freighter travel, though. Check out Freighter Travel and Seaplus.

7. What cargo did you carry?

Actually, a lot of empty 40-footers! We left California with 1,768 empty containers and just 225 full ones, carrying mainly waste paper and scrap metal.

The transpacific trade is notoriously imbalanced: ships loaded with consumer goods arrive in the U.S. from Asia and often return empty.

8. What did the crew do all day?

Pix of two of the officers

Second officer Praveen Menon and third officer Praveen Prabhu

They were all pretty busy during their work shifts, and during time off, had different rituals.

Typically they’d slump exhausted or bored watching DVDs or listening to music in their cabins. A hard-core of ping-pong fanatics got together regularly in the little on-board gym. My personal memories are of playing the Memory Game on the bridge with little Annette.

Time and again, as we sailed across the Pacific, my desire to idealize the crew’s way of life received a cold dose of salty water from those that lived this life daily. I was looking for adventure while the captain and crew were looking for their floating office to run as smoothly as possible.

Second officer Praveen Menon laughed when I asked if being at sea was a romantic life. “No, I don’t think so. Maybe in a passenger ship, but not a merchant ship. They have the atmosphere to be romantic, but here the atmosphere is not romantic at all. It’s purely work.”

9. Did the crew speak English?

Yes, they all spoke English. Captains and officers are required to speak English if they trade in international waters, and the Filipino crew had learnt English at home.

10. What flag did the ship sail under?

It was all very convoluted, but typical for international shipping. I sailed with 20 Indian officers and Filipino crew on a ship built in South Korea, registered (flagged) in Cyprus, owned and managed by a Canadian company and operated by a Chinese state shipping line.

* See my full story about the trip: Sailing to Shanghai