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Eid Mubarak, folks! And for Malay speakers closer to my native Singapore, Selemat Hari Raya!

We’re currently in Sao Paolo, Brazil, but I just wanted to share a quick postcard from the last Iftar of Ramadan in Damascus, Syria last year.

Al Khawali was our eatery of choice for the evening feast. Word on the (Straight) Street was that it was much beloved by locals and visitors alike, and wasn’t likely to need selling an organ to finance the meal, unlike the uber-hip, uber-posh Naranj nearby.

I popped into Al Khawali in the morning to ask for any table at any time slot they could spare that evening. I was quickly turned away. It was (understandably) a big night and they were full. I slunk back onto Straight Street downcast to give Babs the bad news.

We decided that we’d try our luck for a table for the following night, and this time Babs went back in make the booking. He emerged smiling, very pleased with himself, and told me that he got us a table for that night, no problem.

The Shamsuddin name may sometimes garner extra checks at US airports, but here in Syria all it seems to garner is wide smiles, spontaneous hugs, enthusiastic handshakes, and now special-favour tables.

We came back that evening and — in the style of traditional Arabic houses — walked through the dark narrow entrance passage to enter into a vast, beautifully restored mansion.

Our table was perched on a balcony, a great vantage point to view huge extended families celebrating in the main courtyard dining room below.

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The last Iftar of Ramadan feast at Al Khawali (and I suspect) many other restaurants was a set menu, with the first course of many mezzes all set out and ready to go in the late afternoon, so that all guests can tuck (dive?) in all at the same time immediately after the evening call to prayer.

We sat down to a table full of (from right, anti-clockwise) dates, hummus, fatoush (a salad of tomatos, lettuce, sometimes purslane and fried pita pieces), a mushroom and lettuce salad, and a bowl of chickpeas and broadbeans in oil, vinegar and garnished with chopped tomato and parsley.

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The evening call to prayer comes and goes, and the clinking of silverware begins throughout the restaurant. A waiter comes by to dole out cream of mushroom soup to everyone. In the tradition of Prophet Muhammed, we start the feast with a date.

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As we make our way through the mezzes, more treats show up. We each get a kibbe, a fried torpedo-shaped shell of bulgur filled with spiced mincemeat, rice and cashews. We also get a large bowl of unphotogenic but very comforting meatballs doused in a thin yoghurt and spiked with paprika, and garnished with more fried pita pieces.

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Babs and I now come to a very familiar point in any great Middle Eastern meal we’ve had. We’ve made decent progress with the mezzes and we’re feeling sensibly full. So it’s of course time for the main dishes to arrive. Tonight, it’ a giant platter of savoury rice and chicken pieces, topped with rice noodle (I think) segments and cashews.

And just in case that wasn’t enough, a separate plate of rice for buffer.

Like many a meal we’ve had at Goldmine, our favourite Chinese diner in London, we’ve now run out of space on the table, and the waiters do some strategic stacking.

How on earth are we going to do this justice?

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Um. We do, somehow, as we tend to do. Our current roundness bears (a lot of) evidence. Here’s Bab’s mirroring my sheepishness.

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But I do surrender by the time dessert arrives — a plate of baklava (filo with LOTS of honey and pistachios), grapes and watermelon.

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I don’t know if the meal reflects the usual palette of Al Khawali’s chef, or the difference between the cuisine of Damascus and Aleppo, or if that night’s dishes were designed especially for diners who want a gentle segue into meal after fasting all day. Except for the tartness of the lemon juice in many of the mezzes, I was surprised by the very mild taste of all the dishes. The meal had very little of the seductive fragrance or scintillating spices of the lunch we had at Beit Sissi in Aleppo. This was more akin to tucking into one’s favourite Mum-cooked dish of choice — say soup or congee — when one is a tad under the weather. The place was packed to the gills so the cuisine is obviously popular, but personally I think for a such a celebratory meal I prefer more kick than Khawali.

Al Khawali
Off Straight Street, on corner of Maazanet al-Shahim
Damascus, Syria
+963 11 222 5808

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May, 2010

… and sometimes the Twain shall meet.

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While working on posts for my native Singapore’s National Day this past August 9, Bolivians were celebrating their own Independence Day on August 6 around us in Copacabana, the little holiday town on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

Babs and I spent the morning wandering through the throng of people all around town to take in some of the local colour. And how!

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These guys reminded me of one of my favourite Frank Sinatra tunes, Come Fly With Me:

Come fly with me, we’ll float down to Peru
In llama land there’s a one man band, and he’ll toot his flute for you…
Come on fly with me we’ll take off in the blue

I was humming the tune to myself for the rest of the day.

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Babs’s stomach hasn’t been at its iron-clad best since we got to South America, so we haven’t been grazing at local markets and street stalls in Ecuador and Peru as much as we’d usually like. But today there must have been something fortifying in the festive air, because today was the day when Babs felt brave enough to get back into the street-snack saddle.

We wandered into the town’s Mercado Central (hooray!) and sat down to sip some Api Morado, a thick, sweet hot beverage made from boiling purple corn flour with sugar, cinnamon, cloves and — apparently — a touch of pineapple and lemon. See this recipe from BoliviaBella if interested.

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Quite the traditional tonic, it would appear.

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The women at the next stall over were offering fried dough fritters drizzled with sugarcane syrup. It would’ve been rude not to try one.

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The verdict? “What’s not to like,” says Babs, “It’s got carbs, fat and sugar. Just about everything your body is hardwired to seek out. This is the perfect food.”

Back on the street, we find another local specimen of perfect food — churros!

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Now a wee bit more sated, our minds now turned to loftier things. We meandered uphill to the Moorish-style Copacabana Cathedral.

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It’s a big day for blessings. Believers bring an assortment of framed photos of loved ones and effigies of anything else they want holy water sprinkled on — vehicles, models of their houses or shops, etc.

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It finally made sense to me why street vendors were selling models of rather bland looking houses, apartment blocks, hotels and shops on the long uphill road leading up to the church.

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I was thoroughly amused to find a model butchery in the mix.

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Amen.

May 1st

We just completed an exhilarating week WWOOFing on a family-run rice farm about 90 minutes outside of Osaka, Japan, in a town called Nose (pronounced No-say). (Find out more about WWOOFing in general and WWOOFing in Japan in particular.)

Here’s a glimpse of the farm from a nearby rice field.

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Babs’s old friend from school, Chris, joined us for the week. What a great debut WWOOFING gig!

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It’s spring spring spring, smack in time for the busy rice-planting season. There’s plenty-and-a-half to keep us all out of mischief.

I help our host Shigemi to sow the year’s crop. Shigemi grows about 450kg of rice a year, sells two thirds of it to a network of direct customers, and feeds her family with the rest.

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The rice seedlings are nursed very carefully — after a stint in an incubator, the seedlings bask on the front lawn of the house, periodically covered with tarp to keep out the chilly spring wind and rain. Their growth progress is closely monitored to determine when they are ready for transplanting in the fields.

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Rural Japan, if not the whole country, still assigns many roles by gender. So while everyone pitches in for weeding all around the farm, the boys get assigned a lot more outdoor work while I compile a comprehensive (digital) farm instruction manual for Shigemi’s future WWOOFers.

Babs and Chris help to prepare the rice fields for flooding and planting — clearing weeds and stones, leveling the ground, and unchoking the water channel. Here’s a before-and-after shot. Great work guys!

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They also spend the week assembling a giant weed raker, which — once the seedlings are snugly in the ground — will be pulled through the fields once every three days to up-end new weeds. Shigemi’s very excited about this rake because her farm is transiting towards being fully organic. She’s steadily reduced her use of weedkiller over the last few years, and she says with this rake, she’ll be able to stop using weedkiller completely this year. Huzzah!

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We also learn a great deal about foraging and living off the land. Besides garnishing soups and making salad with wild herbs growing around the farm, tis the season for bamboo shoots, and we get a hands-on lesson on spotting and unearthing them. Unfortunately, wild boars in the area have beaten us to quite a number of the delicious shoots, but we still manage a sackful, including Chris’s whopper!

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Last but certainly not least, we learn 2 traditional rice product recipes that have largely disappeared from modern industrial Japan — amazaki, a fermented rice drink, and a very muscle-intensive yamogi mochi.

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Stay tuned!

Dear fellow seafood obsessives,

I’ve seen some impressive seafood markets while on the road, but boy, Tusikiji Fish Market in Tokyo takes the fishcake! Remember when I said I’d died and gone to heaven when I stepped into La Boqueria in Barcelona? Well, take that, add the floor space of all of Barcelona’s 39 other municipal food markets, fill it all with just seafood, and there you have Tsukiji’s inner-core wholesale market. (Tsukiji market’s outer ring sells other food and kitchen products). If I died here due to the stray swing of a tuna hook or axe (below), it wouldn’t be a half bad way to go.

 

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I mentioned earlier that I spent a couple of hours the other morning prowling around the early morning tuna auction. I also trailed the tuna for a bit after they got sold.

The tuna torpedos are transported to their buyers’ stalls and trucks on carts of all shapes and sizes; hand-pulled if it’s just one, motored around if more.

 

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Sometimes just the one is pre-power-sawed before it gets carted off. Possible beginnings of a Damien Hirst piece?

 

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Just imagine the fish stock you could make with this monster.

 

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The route to breakfast at Daiwa Sushi was the ultimate edible aquarium. Here’s an angry looking snow crab.

 

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And here’s some cracked open sea urchin. At Daiwa, we were served the largest sea urchin nigiri I’d ever seen. This stuff still freaks me out, admittedly, so it was quite the I-can’t-fit-it-in-one-bite-but-don’t-want-to-make-it-last-two dilemma.

 

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Did you know that the seafood sold at Tsukiji comes from some 60 countries? Yes indeedy. Tsukiji’s tentacles of influence spread far and wide, though in recent years seafood sales have shifted towards direct channels due to improved global telecommunication.

Pop quiz! If you combined all the squid, cuttlefish and octopus sold at Tsukiji in a day, how many tentacles in total would that be? Bonus question: If today represents a 3% drop in volume from last year, how many tentacles were sold in total last year?

Answer: I don’t know, but I sure wish I got taught Math in school this way.

 

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I also saw shellfish that must have come from Brobdingnag. Each of those mussels(?) clams(?) alien pods(?) (I have no idea, but the 2nd word of the sign reads “mountain”) on the left is larger than my hand. And check out the size of those blood cockles! Almost the size of my fluttering heart.

 

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Ugly pugly, I know, but it’s just the abalone and sea snail’s attempt at presuading predators that “oh no no no, I’m not delightfully sweet and crunchy and chewy at all”. If you’re grimacing “eeeeew gross”, then their ruse has worked, and I’m as pleased as they — more for me!

 

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All in all, I’m happy as a clam. Wish you were here!

Wen

Prologue: Babs and Dave, one of Babs’s best mates from school, are both turning 30 this April. About a year ago I pitched to the gang of ’em that Tokyo would be quite the place for the boys to turn 30. The utter fabulousness of the city worked its magic and convinced a group of 6 from the UK, Netherlands and Hong Kong to come join us for various bits of fun in Japan. Wahey!

 

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Above: Pieces of sushi are hand-made and placed one by one on a wooden board between the diner and the elevated sushi chef, with short intervals in between. This was about as many pieces as I could stand to leave for a sushi group photo before my photographic resolve dissolved

 

If there is anything better than starting your day in Tokyo with a sushi breakfast at Tsukiji fish market, the big Daddy of all fish markets, it is, as I found out, ending your day there.

 

7.30am: Breakfast of Champions

My face is pressed up against Daiwa Sushi’s window, to gauge our waiting time. The sushi chef closest to the window half-smiles with pity but gently beckons me to back away from the glass. I do. I pace. I babble semi-deliriously to Babs, Chris and Helen, my breakfast companions. I’ve looked at a lot of tuna through glass today.

A few diners make their way out, but there is the eternity of the next 2 minutes while their spots are cleared and wiped down. I’m hopping on one foot then the other. I wonder if this is how and why so many Japanese people pursue Zen Buddism.

And we’re in! We’re sat as 2 separate pairs at the extreme ends of the L-shaped counter, but no one minds. We didn’t come here for the conversation.

An empty wooden block is placed between each of us and the elevated sushi chef.

“Mix?” he says. We nod.

And so he does, throwing a series of shapes and layers and textures more sublime than the best of my favourite DJs. Maguro (tuna) and ikura (salmon eggs) maki. A fat raw prawn. Ika (squid). And — as my eyebrows jump and my heart stops — toro (already fatty tuna belly) and chu toro (even more fatty tuna belly). This was going to be financial hari-kiri. But what a worthy death.

Babs and I make semi-obscene little noises of profound enjoyment as we chomp down on each piece of sushi. I don’t understand how the 2 American women next to us are managing to carry on a full conversation about something that is not about sushi. Or any kind of conversation at all. No one else is talking. Not the Japanese businessmen, not the other tourists. Only one bald gaijin with his Japanese friend, but at least he’s talking to the chef about the fish, in fluent Japanese. (I don’t know what about, I just hear the key fish words).

 

6.30am: Gawking At The Goods

We wander through the labyrinth of some 1,700 stalls selling some 450 species of seafood, dodging handpulled and auto carts and forklifts as we go. Separate post to come on this section. Too many photos!

 

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5.30am: Tiptoeing Around Tuna

We’re prowling about the perimeters of Tsukiji’s famed tuna auction warehouse at the back end of the complex, right on the water. Reports in our group’s array of guide books had been mixed about whether visitors were still banned from the auction room or allowed back in, so we peered through whatever open doors and glass panels we could to try and gauge the situation.

 

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In quieter sections I would nip in for a few minutes to get a closer look at the proceedings. It’s nowhere near as loud or as boisterous as I thought it would be. I watch buyers peruse rows upon rows of iced-over tuna torpedos, throwing their scythe-like hooks into shortlisted tails, and hacking out a pinch of raw meat to chew on for the all-important taste-test. Pretty pink pieces of tuna on slabs of rice is one thing. But a warehouse full of tuna carcasses does, I admit, conjure images of casualties of war or some other disaster, laid out for identification and burial.

Inevitably a security guard shows up and nudges me back out the door, apologising all the way. I sure am glad this is Japan rather than Germany, where I’ve seen bouncers super-efficiently pitch over-rowdy Oktoberfesters out of beer tents…

Later I find out that unless you’re in a prebooked school group, visitors these days are not allowed into the tuna auction room. Doh!

We finally stumble into the little area where visitors are shepherded into to observe the auction proceedings from a distance. This is just one of many ongoing auctions all along the length of the warehouse (I suspect grouped into tuna-size batches).

 

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3.30am: Singing in Shinjuku

The group decided that the only way to stay awake for the last hour until it was time to pile into a cab and head east to Tsukiji was to sing at the top of our lungs. Babs scored points for decoding the huge Japanese remote control. Then lost them again as he deliberately experimented with changing the key to a song midway. Three times.

By this time I’m having a splitting headache so right after taking these photos I take a very strategic 30 minute disco nap on the far end of our karaoke room. It made all the difference.

As we leave, Babs and I marvel at all the establishments still open: pachinko bars, karaoke bars, girlie bars, noodle bars, sushi bars, donburi bars, and 24hr internet + magazine + DVD cafes that are a cheap option (compared to taking a taxi home to the suburbs) for partygoers to hang out and nap until the metro system wakes up again. Like New York, this city never sleeps. And as much as I love New York, it’s hard to deny that there’s a lot less trash on the streets and less stress about potentially getting mugged while walking around at night here. I kinda like it that both the police and the yakuza see to that.

 

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11pm: Boys Just Havana Have Fun

Dave and Colin decide they’re in the mood for cuban cigars, so we take shelter from the cold at Havana Bar somewhere in Shinjuku.

Before that we stumble down into a basement bar called God Bar Jazz, where we’re the only people in there and drinks are horrendously overpriced. The jazz comes from a CD rather than a band (I don’t see any space for any kind of band to perform at the best of times). The bar’s saving grace: chocolate covered potato crisps.

 

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8.30pm: Shinjuku Shabu-Shabu

The group was in the mood for shabu shabu for dinner. I didn’t have any leads on where to go for this in Shinjuku, so we had to employ our usual “stare at the menu and stick your head in the doorway” method. This wasn’t our luckiest of discoveries. The hotpot was sufficiently tasty but clearly priced for punters more interested in the pretty waitresses in midriffs and miniskirts rather than the food.

 

3.30pm: Checking Out Cherry Blossoms

We’re in the thick of cherry blossom season, and one of Tokyo’s favourite viewing sites in Ueno Park. There are a couple of fun ways to engage in this breathtakingly beautiful activity (if simply walking under the canopy of a boulevard of cherry trees isn’t thrilling enough for you).

1) Rent a boat at the pond on the south side of the park. The pink swan boats match the cherry blossoms perfectly.

 

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2) Pack a picnic lunch and mat and spend the afternoon under the blossoms making up haikus.

 

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1.30pm: Ravishing Ramen

By pure luck we stumble into Kyushu Jangara Ramen right in front of Harajuku metro station for lunch. I find out later that this is one of Tokyo’s most popular ramen purveyors.

The broth (the first thing I always test with any bowl of ramen, I’ve realised) is beautifully rich, and the slabs of meat have their marinade seeped right through. The hard boiled egg has a lovely just slightly runny yolk (think egg fondant), a magic trick all chefs I’ve crossed chopsticks with in Tokyo so far seem to have mastered.

 

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10.30am: Meetup at the Meiji Shrine

We start the day by walking around the Meiji Shrine gardens.

 

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Some 3 million people worship at this Shinto spiritual centre of Tokyo during the major holidays. Many buy these 500-yen wooden blocks below to record their wishes and prayers.

 

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I like this one below.

 

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And on that fitting note, I bid you and this 22-hour day good morning, and good night. I need a nap.

 

Daiwa Sushi
Tsukiji Market Building 6
5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
+81 3 3547 6807
(5.30am -1:30pm; closed Sunday)

Kyushu Jangara Ramen
Meiji Jingumae “Harajuku” metro station
Come out of Exit 3, and it’s on the left

March 11th

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Above: I’ve seen photos of me wakeboarding and skiing. I have the exact same scrunched up face of grim gritted-teeth terror.

After Babs posted his take on our 3-day 2-night jungle-trekking-treehouse-living-ziplining adventure at The Gibbon Experience in Laos, a few friends pinged me to ask “Hey where’s your version? We wanna hear your version!”

This is not because they discount Babs’s point of view in any way. It’s also not because I am any kind of renown travel writer or an expert on nature or gibbons or adventure sports.

Nooooo. This is largely because anyone who has ever met me will know that this adventure was going a complete disaster for me from the getgo. Those who know me best started laughing hysterically the minute they heard I was going at all.

See, all through my growing up years I’ve been a fan of the great indoors. Which means now in my adulthood I have physical coordination of comic proportions. Moreover, I am a mosquito magnet. So the first thing Babs and I do (for a couple of hours) in any new hostel in the road is to seal the room and hunt down every damn mozzie in the room and clap them back to that special chamber of hell where they belong. (But how do you seal off any kind of area in a jungle?) Finally, I am never going to win any awards for being quietly longsuffering about physical discomfort.

In short, if this were a movie, the character playing me would be someone who has the lithe acrobatic coordination of a Chris Farley character and the gentle lilting humour of Roseanne Barr.

Right then.

The Gibbon Experience started off in Huayxai, Laos, on the other side of the Mekong River from Chiangkorn, Thailand.

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Above: View of Huayxai, Laos, from across the Mekong

We check into The Gibbon Experience office in Huayxai the day before our appointed start date. We then sign away any right to sue the organisation should anything untoward happen to us, even if it’s caused by their faulty equipment. I start squawking at Babs.

The next morning, we show up at the office again to meet our gibbon group mates and watch a 10 minute instructional video on how to use the zipline equipment. Interesting that they show this video only AFTER we’ve signed the liability waiver forms. I feel more, not less terrified after the video.

We then pile into 2 trucks and hit the road for 1 1/2 hours to get to the organisation’s village on the fringe of the Bokeo Nature Reserve.

Get your toilet trips done before you head out — otherwise you’ll have to look for a nice bush on the side of the road enroute. You will then have to choose between the risk of exposing yourself if you choose a bush too close to the road, or the risk of encountering a leech or 2 if you wander too far into the undergrowth.

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Above: Toilet break enroute

We have some time at the village waiting for the later van to show up. People start snapping pictures of the very rustic wooden-plank huts, and the kids running around. I went straight for the free-range black pigs.

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Then we kick off a 1 1/2 hour hike into the jungle. It all looks lovely and pastoral here. But see that nasty upward incline on the far left background? That’s where the path heads.

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Pretty soon it’s all uphill, and along narrow paths that overlook a jungly (is that a word?) ridge. Both my heart and my legs are soon constantly threatening to give out — my legs from a combination of trudging uphill and going soft from the terror of being close to the ridge’s edge.

Mind you, we had signed up only for the “basic” package. The “waterfall” package involves an extra 2 hours of trekking on top of our 1 1/2 hours, to get to their (further out) treehouses. What kind of people sign up for this?! I want to meet them. Actually, scratch that. I don’t want to meet them. They might give Babs ideas.

Finally I spy our treehouse (I’d be told ours was the closest). I was about ready to kill somebody or myself if this turned out to be a mirage. But thank God, it’s really there. I fumble with the zipline, take many deep breaths, grit my teeth, and zip in.

Victory! I’m alive! Now I just have to stay put here till we leave in 2 days.

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But no! I’m thwarted! Our guide tells us to drop our bags, and go with him, and that we’ll be back in half an hour. What?! Why?! We just got here! Where are we going?!

Unfortunately our guide doesn’t have enough English for such complicated questions. So I find myself inadvertantly doing another 4 zip-lines. And, as it turns out, learning a thing or 2 about them.

Like how ziplines are not all built equal.

Some ziplines have more of a slope than others. So you have to brake before you reach the end of the line so that you can land at a comfortable speed and find your footing like a pro. I squeeze the brake. Nothing happens. So my backup brake kicks in. By that I mean my right shoulder lowers my speed by slamming into the tree anchoring the zipline. There’s no TV in the treehouse, obviously, but my shoulder provides quite the intriguing range of technicolour developments in the days following.

Some ziplines have less of an incline than others. So you may not have enough momentum to make it to the platform at the other end, and have to haul yourself in, hand by hand at a time. This is still a tolerable scenario. Except I start slipping backwards. I know it’s not far, but for the life of me I can’t bloody reach the end of the zipline! And so instead I reach the end of my rope.

So our guide (I give them a lot of credit for patience with my epic ineptness) has to zip out, hook up to me, and haul me in. Later, while scrolling through the photos on my camera, I discover that my loving husband has captured this moment of panic, despair and humiliation for posterity.

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Finally, finally finally we make it back to the treehouse, and get to settle in and have a proper look around. Here’s our living cum dining room.

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Our 6-person treehouse has 3 “split level” platforms for bedrooms. Each bedroom has a couple of mattresses, pillows, and a large hanging blanket tent for privacy and mosquito netting. It reminds me of the blanket tents I used to set up in my bedroom or living room during pyjama parties growing up. Yes I did my childhood camping trips in the great indoors as well.

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From our “bedroom”, I have a spectacular view of this wasp nest below. Each little round brown “dot” you see in the semi-circle is a wasp. The rougher pattern on the left half of the semi-circle is the awake and moving half of the nest. Delightful.

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Here’s our treehouse bathroom, where the wasps like to hang out. Specifically, in the squat toilet hole, for whatever reason (disgusting creatures). Which makes squatting on the toilet a fairly stressful affair. I suspect we used more water spraying the wasps down the toilet before using it, than showering. A Scandinavian chap from another treehouse tried to use our toilet, but just couldn’t bring himself to. He was completely freaked out. I feel his pain. And you shouldn’t mock him either, till you’ve bared your ass a few inches from 6 angry looking wasps!

And now let us take another “give credit where credit is due” moment to admire the fact that the tree house has a running-water shower at all, some 50m off the ground. Hell, it was more than we had on the ground, while volunteering in Western Kenya.

And by the way, this stuff was drinkable spring water. Amazing. Do not try drinking water from the tap in the rest of Laos, kids.

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The treehouse also has a little solar panel to power a few strategically placed lightbulbs at night. There’s also a canister of gas so that we can make hot tea and coffee. I’m impressed. Especially with whichever little Lao person had to zipline in with that monster of a gas can.

Meals are all cooked by the Gibbon Experience staff at base camp 2 (close to the end of the 1 1/2 hour hike) and then zip-lined into the various treehouses by tiffin-bearing guides. Kinda like Tarzan takeout.

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Our treehouse mates — 3 teachers and a occupational rehab therapist from a mix of Australia, Austria and Canada — are lovely people, but let’s face it, my favourite treehouse mate was this ginger tabby below. Yes. More favourite than Babs, for these 2 days anyway. What’s not to like? The cat is cute, it’s clean, it’s sociable and affectionate, it hunts and eats cicadas and whatever else (people in other treehouses were constantly traumatised by giant spiders and rodent-like gnawing and rustling sounds at night. No such frights at our treehouse). And most importantly, the cat didn’t make me go hiking, did it.

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Above: I catch the cat winking at me. But I think it loves me only for my dinner plate.

The cat does make me nervous, though, when it pads around the edges and railings of the treehouse, which is some 35m off the ground.

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Our meals — mostly rice with lots of vegetables and wee bits of meat — are nothing much to write home about. Much more interesting is our supplied chest of anytime-snacks, consisting largely of local fruits, including green mangoes, tiny and incredibly sweet clementines, and lots of fresh tamarind straight from the pod. Also, some peanut brittle candy and 2 tins of sweetened condensed milk for our lovely smelling hefty-bodied Lao coffee.

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Guides are on standby the next day to take anyone who’s interested trekking and ziplining, in the hopes of sighting some gibbons.

I respond enthusiatically. (see photo below)

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Turns out, the gibbons came to me! Or at least, to a tree in direct line of sight from our “bedroom”. I watch them for about an hour, swinging about, picking fruit, howling their gibbon howl at one another, feeling pretty damn smug.

Eventually everyone else ziplines back from their morning trek and crowds around to watch the gibbons as well. Word gets around and people from other treehouses zipline in as well.

That afternoon I fall asleep in the afternoon heat reading my book. Unfortunately I forgot to use bugspray (usually necessary only starting at dusk). When I wake up my left hand is so bugbitten and swollen that I’ve lost my knuckles and found 2 purple fingers. About the same shade of purple as my shoulder that day. Well if I can’t be physically coordinated I can at least be colour coordinated, I suppose.

Finally it’s time to leave. The hike back downhill to the village is still painfully slow — this time because I am whatever is the complete opposite of a surefooted mountain goat (a cat with taped up paws, so I’ve been told), rather than lousy cardio — but at least my spirits are high.

Epilogue

I learn that for all my whingeing, things could have been far worse (is it perverse that that always makes one feel better?). Back at the village, I meet an Australian girl I don’t recognise from our troupe going up 2 days before. I say hello and we start chatting. Turns out she was in the waterfall group which started a day after us. It also turns out she was too large to fit comfortably or safely in any of the harnesses. So she and her friend had to part ways and she had to sleep overnight in the village to hitch a ride back to Huayxai with us.

We later met another girl from that same waterfall group. This was hours later. It was hours later because in the whatever deeper darker part of the jungle these crazy waterfall people go, she too, had failed to brake adequately on a zipline, and so braked by slamming, and potentially breaking her leg against a tree. And so with this potentially broken leg, she, her boyfriend, and a guide, had to inch their way back to the village through an excruciating combination of ziplines, motorcycle and donkey.

Gotta love those indemnity waiver forms.

To wrap up, I’d just like to say, in case you feel like I’m just rubbishing the whole thing, take another look at the title of this post. The gibbons were fun to watch, the guides were patient and sufficiently attentive, the jungle was lush etc etc. It’s just not for everyone. Some, like Babs, will have a whale of a time. But some others, like me, will simply feel like a whale the whole time.