Thursday, April 20, 2006

what an animal

Some of you know Tiffany's weakness for cuteness. but we're not talking babies here. We're talking animals. But not really dogs, for example. And neither wild zebras. Really, farm animals. Well, we came to the right place here in New Zealand. They have so many. Sheep, of course. But also a variety of cows (including a shaggy scottish breed), Tiffany's favorite the goats, and also llamas and alpacas, along with ostriches and emus. The even have the kuni-kuni, an odd variety of pig that is the first mammal brought to NZ!

We had a couple of different experiences with all of these animals. First, we went to "The Agrodome" near Rotorua, which is an agricultural exhibition tourist attraction, and they have a farm tour where they take you around and show you various plants and animals, but you get to feed some of the animals, which is really fun. Tiffany looked like herself in a little picture she has from when she was about 6 years old at a petting zoo!

Please View Agrodome Photos: http://bitjug.com/gallery/Agrodome

The other opportunity we had was in Queenstown, at the "deer park" which offers guided tours but you can also drive yourself through the animal park and buy food from several dispensers. Imagine several very large animal enclosures draped across some foothills, and you have an idea. There were just about all the animals we had seen before, but we also got to feed the aforementioned kuni-kuni, get up close with the scottish shaggy cows, and practically give the deer a hug! All in all, an unusual tourist experience but one I really enjoyed as well!

Please View Queenstown Park Photos: http://bitjug.com/gallery/SouthAnimals

Life on the Sledge

Faster than a speeding rubber raft over rapids....
It's a sled, it's a kick board....

And it's a world class sport in Europe and New Zealand, outrageous fun and we did it...soaring over Class 4 rapids on the Kaituna River in nothing but a wetsuit, life jacket, helmet and fins on a sledge.

Say What???

Sledging (or "slihj-ing" as the Kiwis say) is another one of the New Zealand's fabled adrenaline-amping activites and we couldn't resist.~> read more (with photos)

 Andy and I read about it in guidebooks, saw brochures and knew it involved water, us and some crazy plastic contraption called a "sledge" but were simultaneously intrigued and puzzled. The only Sledge I knew was "Sister Sledge" and while "We are family" is a great song, I knew this wouldn't translate to white water rapids.

So, we drove to Rotorua in the Bay of Plenty on the North Island, a playground of thermal pools, green and frothy white rivers, even greener acres of sheep pastures, and a plethora of outdoor tour operators with a knack for raising your adrenaline-- and possibly fear quotient by an order of magnitude. As Andy and I arrived at Kaitiaki Adventures at 8:30am, we were greeted by a very perky group of raft and sledge guides with plenty of mojo and moko -- the Maori term for tattooing -- who divided the sledgers from the rafters and started us in training. Adze was our teacher, a native Kiwi and Maori who had crinkly, smiling brown eyes, the most laid-back, encouraging disposition and best accent ever. So great was his rhythm and cadence that Andy and I felt we'd gotten our money's worth just hearing him sing things out like "goize" (guys), "eez-zey-peez-zey" (easy peasy), "ihv-ree-thingz'-kyewl?" (everything is cool?) and "fihrry glyde-ing" (ferry gliding)!

The sledge is like the front half of a sled, curved and hydro-dynamic, but made of the hard plastic usually reserved for snow saucers or drink coolers. About 30 inches long and 24 inches wide, the sledge has metal bars on the left and right front that are your handles. Rule #1 is never, ever let go of the sledge! Hang on to those handles for dear life. Rule #2 is turn your head sideways as you go headfirst into the churning, foamy rapids, so you don't hit the pretty parts of your face on the hard parts of the sledge. Rule #3 is that you will get tumbled upside down in the water, churned and spurned by the rapids, but adhere to Rule #1 and don't let go of the sledge! Instead, hang on tight to the handles, crunch your tummy muscles (if you're lucky enough to have them--ha!), pull the sledge in toward your abdomen and roll sideways in the water -- pushing your sledge forward so you pop back above river-level and ready to float.

"Yeah, right," I thought as I watched with eyes that I'm sure were the size of the $2 Kiwi coin in disbelief, "really easy-peasy."

The next step to get sledge-ready was donning our outfits. Of course, that got me excited, but our sledging numbers didn't include accessories that I was familiar with wearing. Or anything fashionable for that matter. Adze fitted us, if you can even call getting yourself squeezed indelicately and bulging into matte black neoprene being fitted, for full wet suits and booties, plus we got polypropolene long john tops, a helmet, fins and a life jacket. No jewelry either -- and that came from Adze to me as an imperative, not a statement that we wouldn't get any to wear for the sledge ride. Too bad. Andy, myself, a British couple, Adze and our other guide Tak, piled awkwardly in all of our neoprene into a van with our sledges in a trailer towed behind, and off we headed for sledging the Kaituna.

The Kaituna River was distracting in its beauty -- which was a good thing when I saw the foamy white of waterfalls and rapids churning over rocks and knew that we'd soon be in that feisty froth. First, however, Tak and Adze took us down through some caves where Maoris (NZ's native people of Polynesian descent)used to hide the women and children during tribal wars, and then they spoke of their tribes' respect of mother nature and said a Maori blessing before we entered the water. As I eyed the sledges and then the rapids, I personally hoped this was more for our tourist benefit rather than safety, but was taken by the seeming authenticity of the moment as they spoke the foreign but mellodious words in a natural theater of craggy lava rock, velvety green ferns and clear teal river water.

One, two, three -- SPLASH!!! Into the river I jumped, sledge in front of me, landing like with a splat-whack akin to a belly flop. Only the sledge protected me, and I was instantly buoyant in the river and able to thrust about just fine by kicking with my fins with unanticipated control. Excellent! It appears I'll be swimming for this one, instead of sinking!! The Kaituna's currents were strong, really unexpectedly so, and its force wanted to push me and my sledge into the vortex right away. But Tak and Adze grabbed us all by the sledges into a cove area of rocks and went over the rules again: hang onto the sledge, turn head sideways over the rapids, be ready to flip, hang on. And then made each of us practice flipping over, tucking our tummies and rolling back over upright and ready to rock and roll for another rapid. I was both surprised and relieved to find that maneuver wasn't as hard I as expected -- it almost felt natural when you're under water -- and I was now getting excited about just doing it for real.

Soon enough, Tak and Adze had us four sledgers lined up in a row and we burst off the rocks with a push into the open river and got carried away in a current of fun. Floating and maneuvering the sledge was easy, and I loved how fast the river was running and pushing me along. I personally find rafting kind of boring and don't feel like I'm doing anything of consequence when I'm on one, but this was totally different! On the sledge, it was me, it and the river working together (and against each other) and I felt my adrenaline raise as I navigated rocks and eddies, and saw our first rapid section in sight.

Being in the water and seeing the actual physical drop of a rapids section in the river, hearing the water rushing over rocks and seeing the green water turn to milky white foam at eye level was truly exhilirating. I think I let out an unconscious "whoo-hoo!" as I sledged over the rapids, remembering to turn my head, and loved how the river tossed and turned me. It was kind of like going down a water slide, but a lot faster, and was more physical as you had to kick once you hit the bottom of the rapids. Yet you still got that sensation of "liquid stomach" when something is really exciting and unexpected, plus seeing the rapids swirling about you and watching the sledger in front of you disappear into the white water for a moment was awesome and amazing. I got a bunch of water in my mouth, but that was only because I was laughing and smiling -- I didn't know a river could be this much fun!?!?!

We sledged five more sections of rapids, each one a bit better than the last, and finished up with Adze and Tak teaching us how to kick into a rapid, letting the force of the water keep you in place so you're sledging upstream for a moment and feeling the water surge over and pour onto you. I did flip at least once, but it happened so fast and I rolled over naturally, so it wasn't a big deal at all. Really, quite easy-peasy. I know Andy loved sledging too as he kept trying to keep his eyes open to see all of the fun and nearly lost a contact, plus I heard a few other "Yeah! Yippeee! Yee-haw!" out of others -- and no one in our group was even from Texas.

Check out the photos and see us sledging -- it's definitely one of the highlights for us in New Zealand: http://bitjug.com/gallery/Sledging

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Bored of the Rings

Once upon a time, there was a country called New Zealand, full of lush green forests, deep, dark mountains and clear blue seas, that resided blissfully in the quiet of the Southern Hemisphere. Normal humans lived there in a mostly-British style though they had a flair for the outdoors. Few people from the Other hemisphere ever visited New Zealand and nary an elf, hobbit, orc, wizard, warrior or princess existed.

Then Peter Jackson returned like a king from Hollywood, filmed a fanatical triology in its varied, unspoilt midst and forever changed the landscape of New Zealand. The Lord of the Rings, completed ever-so-thoroughly, in three parts was a tour-de-force that changed the country's tourist and physical landscape forever. Crazy people come and visit New Zealand now from both hemispheres, with their "one ring" and capes and pointy Guendolf hats, searching the land for now-film-iar geography from The Lord of the Rings movies. Up hill, down dale and past sheep, these crowds go on tour looking for Mount Doom, Hobbiton and other glimpses of Middle Earth...and often in fully-painted 4WD vehicles advertising "Trilogy Tours" and "LOR".

The Government appointed a speical "Rings" ministerial post to manage the fall out and fall in of tourism from the movies, and he focused on publicizing location shoots, redesigning thousands of brochures to include this information, and putting up the small, cryptic to those not-in-the-know signs that read "LOR" in stark black on white with an arrow pointing off directionally in the middle of somewhere pristine, natural and beautiful. As seen in the photo, "LOR" signs can sneak up on you in New Zealand now...in the middle of a nature preserve or on an idyllic cliff with views to heaven and the blue skies beyond!

And where there's "LOR", there are "LOR"-ers in groups, in cars and jeeps and Rovers, with books, capes, hoods, hats and hordes of cameras and video. Some of them even quote "LOR" lore when on jet boats, as witnessed by the author.

That puzzling phenomenon aside, The Lord of the Rings made a significant impact on New Zealand, in both pride and profit, and spurred a new segment within the tourist industry despite terrorism and SARS scaring the hell out of others in other hemispheres. People who visited before this triology will be surprised when they return and see towers of signage and advertising about "LOR" in New Zealand. Wellington now has a new affectionate nickname, "Wellywood", from the filming and production, and even though the Department of Conservation had most sets dismantled, there are books, maps and instructions with GPS coordinates (!) readily available and for sale for people seeking Middle-Earth.

The moral of the story is that movies can be good for the national economy to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, but it's a slippery slope when you're suddenly known as Middle-Earth and must decide if there's a gentle, non-invasive, genuine way to take advantage of the publicity. Even if Hollywood is your fairy godmother, the same rule applies: be careful what you wish for!

The End

Thursday, April 13, 2006

surf's up

I had been looking forward to trying Surfing at some point. Some of you know I have some experience in other board-sports and besides that a love of the water (especially the ocean), but this combination I had never tried. Whenever I visit a beach, I want to swim in the ocean, even if the water is cold.

I had heard, however, from several people who had tried surfing for themselves that it was very difficult and exhausting. You have a few factors, which I experienced firsthand: 1. you have to paddle yourself around a whole bunch to get in position, which tires you out surprisingly quickly, 2. meanwhile you're getting pounded by the waves, and 3. if you can catch the wave, then you try to stand up on the board and promptly slip right off, and you start back at 1. So where's the fun?

Well, I was very fortunate to choose Raglan, North Island, New Zealand to try it out,~> read more (with photos)

  because this area has very wide beaches with a very gradual change in depth out from the beach, and the waves break a good distance out from the beach for a large portion of the tide cycle. I was doubly fortunate to arrive on a day when the surf was very small. I didn't know this before I started, but small waves make it easier to catch them (at least with a learner's board), and it's certainly less work to fight them.

So, I took a 1/2 day surf lesson, where I spent about 4 hours out. we practiced how we were going to jump up on the board and stand up on the beach before we got into the water. When we got into the water, I caught the first wave and tried to jump up. For that split second, things were feeling good, but I had a thought of "I can't do this on the first try." Well, on the second try I stood right up and rode along. I was really surprised, because I expected it to be so much more difficult to learn. I must point out again, though, that I had wonderful conditions to start. Also, I have done a ton of snowboarding and quite a bit of wakeboarding, which particularly contributes. And on top of that, all I was doing on that second try was riding along, nothing fancy.

So, I was fortunate to stand up on just about every wave for the whole lesson. My instructor told the other students that it wasn't fair when someone like me was in the class, because I made it look to easy. Needless to say, I was very excited. I came back the next day alone and spent another 4 hours. The waves were much bigger that day, so I had to learn how to apply my techniques to these new conditions. I fell off a few times at the beginning, upgraded to a shorter board midway and fell off a couple of times again, then started falling off even more in the final 45 minutes or so when I was getting REALLY tired.

All in all, I had a great time! I even surfed near Kaikoura on the South Island when we were there much later in the trip. This area has no sand, only 6-36" rocks (not sharp, though), which was a challenge in itself. Make no mistake, I am still quite a beginner, but I feel fortunate to have a good start!

More photos here, including a neat sequence Tiffany took: http://bitjug.com/gallery/Surfing-Raglan

The most hilarious non-adrenaline activity

It's called ZORBing. No, you don't think you are going to die as you might in bungee jumping or skydiving, which are both very popular here in New Zealand, at least for tourists.

You see, kiwis have invented this huge clear vinyl ball. It's actually two balls, an inner and outer one, with thin bungee cords and inflated air in between. The outer layer ball is maybe 12 feet in diameter, the inner one more like 8.

so, what do they do with these strange things? Stuff you inside and roll you down a big hill, of course!! There is a way to strap a person to the inside. But there's more! The really fun way to do this is not to be strapped inside at all. See, the genius thing to do is just hop in (there's a little hole you can squeeze through, then they zip it shut), and have them dump a bunch of water in. Better yet, make that warm water! Instant washing machine! As you're careening down this hill, you're sliding around inside this huge ball, totally unable to control your orientation.

but wait, there's even more! What can make this even funnier? Add a person you know and love to the same ball! This way you are both flopping around uncontrollably in warm water as this huge ball rolls down the hill, for what seems like 5 minutes but is probably more like 45 seconds.

You may have guessed that Tiffany and I had the chance to try this craziness together. For right now, the place to do it is Rotorua, in the north island of New Zealand. It's right near the Agrodome which I plan to talk about in another post. There is some talk that they will be opening a ZORB operation in the smoky mountains in tennessee. If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend it! We have the photos: http://bitjug.com/gallery/ZORBing

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

How To Speak Kiwi...

Per the previous post, not only are we struggling through speaking our own language here in New Zealand, we're also grappling with our listening comprehension. The Kiwis are friendly and it rocks when we ask questions or for directions in English and are responded to in English. But...many times, Andy and I are left bereft. Because we don't understand the words they're using, and sometimes even when we think we know the word, the vowels involved and their pronunciation are foreign.

It's pretty entertaining and we're having a great time trying to speak Kiwi. Maori, however, is a totally different story. Many of the names of cities, streets, mountains, parks and more are in Maori, which is of polynesian descent and similar to Hawaiian, and we're a lost cause. The corker for that was when we were given directions for a short cut and told to turn left at a town called "Fahta-Fahta", which of course gave us the giggles. When we later asked for help at a gas station because we just couldn't find that town on the map, the attendant pointed us to a dot named Whakawhaka!!!

Anyway, here's a little lexicon for your enjoyment:

fush 'n chups = fish and chips. Vowels are entertaining here!

tucker = to eat, "tuck into" does not refer to bed.

flat white = latte involving coffee. A chai latte, however, doesn't involve coffee.

bush = forest

footie = rugby; not your foot.

al-oo-min-ee-yum = aluminum, "aloo-mih-num" as we like to say. You can imagine the confusion when we went round and round understanding what the boat was made out from.

shattered = tired; Andy after mountain biking, not his dreams or anything else.

dairy, pronounced "dearie" = local mini market like 7-11; not cow milking place.

Mackers = McDonalds. Confusing term when asking directions and that was given as place to turn right.

sunnies = sunglasses, which are allowed on jet boat rides but not sledging.

chillie bin = a cooler

Hokey Pokey = not the dance. Toffee-butterscotch flavor of candy, ice cream.
Too bad! You can imagine how excited I got when thinking a restaurant had the hokey pokey on its menu!

tramping = not me, or any other lady, on a night out; it's hiking and you tramp through the bush here in NZ.

How Do We Speak English?

Since recovering our native tongue in New Zealand, we've had a few moments of hilarity and inarticulateness. We wanted to try and share these with all of you, but they may get lost in translation. Oh well -- here goes!

"You have big size?" Andy asked the clerk in the wool sweater store...
who looked at him quizzically. I started laughing, especially because he'd said "beegh size" without the short 'i' vowel sound like they do in all of SE Asia, and he quickly recovered to ask her if they carried a selection of sizes beyond medium.

"Same, same!" I answered perkily to the waitress...
who looked at me with puzzlement. She'd asked what I'd be having for lunch and I wanted the same thing as Andy. In SE Asia, "same, same" is a huge phrase and used by everyone in description and affirmation. Without thinking, I just chirped "same, same" and sounded like a weird, un-English-speaking animal.

"This one--how much?" asked Andy, pointing to a rafting trip brochure and talking to a Canadian...
who started laughing at him immediately, as she'd traveled through Vietnam before NZ and knew he was speaking abbreviated English.

"No have? Have!?" I asked the seafood seller, while Andy pointed to the menu photo of Green Lipped Mussels...
who just stared back us, looking surprised. Almost like he'd expected that with our white-skinned looks like we'd speak normal English. We wondered if they had the fresh local delicacy of mussels available and went automatically into our Asian questioning mode.

"How many are you?" I asked politely to a British family at a sheep show...
the Mum of the group looked uncomfortably baffled and the father looked at me politely but blankly. Quickly recovering once I processed the silence, I asked, "How many of you are in your family and traveling together?" as they had a campervan and filled a row of seats. In India and SE Asia, that's how you ask 'how big is your group? how many of you are there?, etc' without sounding like a weirdo.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Culture Shock: New Zealand

We flew 12 1/2 hours way, way south from Bangkok to Auckland on a fine Airbus outfitted with on-demand tv and plenty of American movies we never saw before leaving in December (yes!), alighting in a land where we looked like most of the natives and talked the language. WHOA...culture shock!

Quickly getting in the groove of looking, talking and feeling "normal", we rented a car and remembered what it was like to drive again. On the "wrong" side of the road sure, but hey -- it's all relative these days. The left hand is wrong in India, the right hand of the road is wrong in Thailand but not Cambodia or Laos, and we now know to look left and right, up and down, when crossing the street so it's all good.

As Andy wound our little Toyota Starlet in its manual transmission glory through our first round-a-bout, we rolled down the windows and started to take in the landscape around us. Breathing deep, we smelled nothing but fresh air, and breathed deep again to make sure we weren't dreaming. No pollution! No foreign smells and spices -- just air, fresh and clean and cool. Madness.

And the landscape...wow! New Zealand seems to be one of those places where all you've heard and seen is actually true -- and even better in person. The water is impossibly blue and it crashes into a pristine land of green pastures and jaggedy, rock mountains populated by sheep, cows and charming people who speak a funny, mixed-up-vowels version of the Queen's English. They take tea, love rugby and rarely honk their horns. It's deathly quiet to us and there are so few people on the streets of New Zealand we wonder if we're in the wrong place even when we're right on track.

Our panoramic palette changed dramatically on that plane ride from Asia to New Zealand too, and we're now embedded in a unique spectrum of green, blue, black and white. Gone are the ubiquitous gold temples and orange monk's robes, disappeared is that uninviting brown sludge river water and forgotten is the deep red of spicy curries and hibiscus tea. Trees, ferns, grass and flora native only to New Zealand blankets the nation in tones that rival any jungle; the water is nothing short of insane in its clarity and teal-blue-green color. Black pops out everywhere because it's the color of craggy mountain silhouettes shadowed from sun and the uniforms of New Zealand's rabidly beloved "All Blacks" national rugby team, and white represents the wool of sheep, the sails of boats and the puffy clouds that float above us in the sky but never mar a beautiful day.

Andy and I keep looking around us and then at each other in wonder. Where did we land? Is this all real? Then we visited the ATM, of course, and it was all too real because the prices here are NOT that of Asia. A bit "ix-peen-seeve" as the locals might say. If there's such a thing as fiscal shock, then I guess we're experiencing that too here in New Zealand. $36 US for a room in a hostel without a bathroom? Gulp. Oh well...the "trip of a lifetime" mantra recitation begins.

Besides, there's awesome local wine on every menu, in every grocery store--with real, fixed price tags--and we kicked off our first night in Auckland with an outrageously jammy Pinot from Waipara and savored every sip. This was NOT Beer Lao! And, there's REAL cheese on this pizza. YES!

Plus, the opportunities for new adventures....kayaking, surfing, bungy jumping, sledging, caving, jet boating, tramping...what?!? Directions for it all in English, no less! Adrenaline craziness with nary a cerebral, historical pursuit. Most excellent! Honestly, after 3 months in Asia, we're ready for this kind of culture shock and can't wait to experience it all.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

It's The Little Things...

As we take leave of Asia and journey the hemisphere way south to New Zealand, Andy and I collaborated on a list of random things for which we're very grateful and wanted to share.

The following are items which we've encountered on a near daily basis for the past 3 1/2 months and missed greatly or felt thankful for on our home turf. It's so funny how simple and basic they are...things which rarely enter our mental space and recognition at home in the States but are noticeably present--or really, un-present--in our travel lives.

Enjoy -- and go use these things with a new perspective!

Sewer Covers = Yep, that's right. We're thankful for anything that shields us, to put it bluntly, from falling into shit and smell on the street. In Laos and Cambodia, open sewers gape left and right on the roads and pose precarious, smelly threats to the traveler. You learn to look in EVERY direction when walking and crossing, being especially vigilant on a street corner where these open pits of stink, bacteria, waste and toxic nightmare lurk, unmarked, uncovered and ready to swallow your innocent sandaled feet! I got out of a cab in Vientiane and was wrangling with my pack, not noticing the open sewer with pasty, oily, inky foul water next to me, and almost took a nasty plunge when I got situated and stepped forward. Had it not been for a tall, stray piece of bamboo submerged in the muck (perhaps as some sort of warning marker?) that I grabbed onto for dear life, I would have had a supremely shitty experience.

Shower Curtains = Shower stalls and curtains do not exist in the guest houses and little hotels in which we've stayed for between $6-$20 per night in India, Laos and Cambodia. Instead, your bathroom has a shower head and knobs mounted on the wall between or across from the sink and toilet. It's one big room for showering and when you're finished, it's totally wet, wet, wet on the floor, walls, ceilings, toilet seat, etc! Somehow, we've found this diminishes the sheer pleasure of a shower because you're wiping the whole room down and not wanting to use it for a few hours afterwards.

Paper Napkins = Ahh, absorbent, soft, lovely paper. Don't ever take it for granted again! And napkins -- so much bigger and better than a roll of pale pink toilet paper sitting on your restaurant table. India has plastic napkins that are less absorbent than cement, and felt about the same on sunburned skin. And mentally, we just can't our heads around the toilet paper on the dinner table in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. You're constantly pulling strands of TP out of kleenex box-like dispenser to wipe curry off your sticky fingers and it feels strange rather than satisfying.

Fixed Prices = EVERYTHING in Asia and India is negotiable for locals, even in supposed "fixed" prices shops! And as a White Westerner/First Worlder, we never pay the same as locals...always more. We yearn for a nice pink price tag sticker that shows what we and everyone else pay at the register, and eliminates the necessary mental psych up for bargaining.

Flush Toilets & Toilet Paper = Though we moved away from the squat toilets of India in Laos and Cambodia, that doesn't mean the porcelain stand ups that we're familiar with flushed themselves! That's right...many a restroom has a toilet and large container, sometimes a bucket, other times a tiled bin mounted on the floor beneath a primitive faucet, full of water. With a bucket or ladle floating in it. One uses this reservoir of water to scoop into the toilets and flush them manually until the toilet water is clear. In many countries, you also use this extra water to douche yourself clean with the left hand, thus negating the need for toilet paper. I love toilet paper, however, and live to see giant rolls of it in a land of flush toilets!

Heinz Ketchup = There is truly no substitute. No other ketchup or tomato sauce competes. It makes everything from chips to eggs to toast to bland fried rice taste better. We found a bottle of it in Cambodia, paid $6 for it and it's traveling with us!

Liquid Soap = Most restrooms and communal washing sinks in Asia have bars of soap sitting in mushy puddle of water for your use. It's awesome that soap is alive and well and ready to disinfect us, and many come in pretty colors like pale yellow and fine scents like jasmine. But, somehow, the moist, community, gunky bar of soap seems less appealing and sanitary than liquid soap and we ache for plastic containers of SoftSoap or wall-mounted white dispensers that you push with an easy flick of your hand, never touching anything unexpected or squishy.

Hand Dryers = Like the communal soap, the communal hand towel is big in SE Asia. We found "the basin" in restaurants from Bombay to Bangkok, Phnom Penh to Luang Prabang, and happily washed up before meals and after temple outings. However, there are never hand dryers -- only a single damp, saggy cotton hand towel that looks like it saw better days in your college dorm room waiting for you, and everyone else, to dry their hands upon. Sigh...ugh. Another concept that it's just hard to get your head around and feel good and clean about. Never-ever have I wiped my hands on my pants so frequently!

Hot Showers = Hot usually means one things in SE Asia and it's the weather, not the water temperature. If you pay extra for a room with "hot water", you hope for the best which is warm to lukewarm, and it's all coming from a little electric heater unit mounted on the wall next to the faucet fixture that lights up a red button when plugged in and ready. I know, I know -- electricity and water all in the same shower and bathroom. It doesn't compute!

But then, neither does Asia. And that's the beauty and bitter-sweetness of it.