One year when Uwe and I took a vacation in Asia, I jumped at the chance to fly early and visit my sister Pam and my nephew Nikolai in Hong Kong. They lived in the city for a few years, and Pam had made a game out of finding as many cultural events as possible.
We attended a Japanese hip hop performance, fascinated to see how a form that began with black America was interpreted into Japanese. We got tickets for electrifying (and surprisingly political) Chinese modern dance. Not everything we saw was good; we had to suffer through an hour of really bad flamenco. We fled as soon as politely possible.
And Pam got us tickets for the Bootleg Beatles.
Asians retain a fierce love of the Beatles to this day, and the Bootleg Beatles aren’t your average cover band. The Bootlegs are the Beatles’ first and oldest tribute band. They have been playing for over 36 years! “George”, “Ringo”, “John” and “Paul” sing and play, complete with costume changes to track the evolution of the group. An eight-piece orchestra backs them up. They. Are. Terrific.
The Lyric Theatre of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts is a classic amphitheater space. Our seats must have been the last three sold: Pam, Nikolai and I sat high, high up in the last row.
Once they started playing, it was clear why the concert was completely sold-out. It was like the Bootlegs were channeling the original band. My sister and I got up and danced.
But a strange thing happened: during the entire concert, we were the only people dancing. The amphitheater was filled to capacity with more than a thousand Hong Kong residents and visitors – and everyone was far too well-behaved to get on their feet.
We were surprised that no one else danced. Had we missed something? Was there some kind of Asian protocol about performances? We looked at one another, at Nikolai (sitting between us with his face covered, totally absorbed in listening to the band and not about to join us) and the proper people sitting all around. Like I say: we had seats in the final row up in nose-bleed territory. The only thing behind us was a cement wall. Who would it disturb if we danced?
So we did. From Please Please Me to Back in the USSR to All You Need is Love, we rocked out. Pam and I had a ball. There is something about giving yourself over to the ecstasy and joy of great music. These are the tunes of our childhoods and teenage years.
We grew up with the Beatles. The night in 1964 the band played on The Ed Sullivan Show, Mom came and got us out of bed. “Come see the Beatles!” she urged. I was a little kid at the time. I remember dashing to the black and white television set in excitement… only to watch bewildered as four men in black sang. Where were the insects? (Our dad Bobbo was an entomologist, so my confusion was genuine.) Later the band and their music became – and remain – an integral part of the weave of my life.
So. Fast-forward almost 50 years to an amphitheater in Hong Kong, and you’ll understand why we simply had to get up and boogie.
Before the first break, “George” said how nice it was everyone had come out for the show. He added, “Especially you at the back. We’re really glad you’re here. You’re great!”
“Hey!” I exclaimed. “Do you think he means us?” At the end of the show, “George” and the boys thanked the audience for coming, with “A special thank you to the two girls in the top row. You made the show.”
Some events remain live. In a parallel universe and all my dreams, I’m still dancing.
I had an encounter with magic in southern Laos. I mean this literally. We flew to Pakse, in order to make our way down to an area called 4,000 Islands. Laos’s border to Cambodia is a stretch of the Mekong River with wild waterfalls and rushing waters.  The French ambitiously (and quixotically) tried to build a train through the jungle at Don Det-Don Khon. The rapids defeated them. We hired a driver and sweet young man named Ley to guide us around. We made an outing to Paksong on the Bolaven Plateau, home of small, superb Laotian coffee plantations. On our drive back we stopped at a market hall. Taxis were filling with local workers who stopped to buy groceries. Rows of vendors sold grades of rice, eggs, fresh fruit, coffee (natch), bolts of cloth, dried fishes, vegetables and herbs, freshly cooked food and plastic bags of marinades and sauces.
The variety of fresh produce is tremendous: alone in these photos I can identify three different sizes and shapes of eggplant, tomatoes, cilantro, parsley, Thai basil, oranges, peppers in every size and grade of hotness, cucumber, bitter melon, carrots, zuccini, onions, garlic, bok choy, green and Napa (Chinese) cabbages, ginger, limes, long beans, shallots, spring onions, chives, squash, rose apples.
Women from the hill tribes had wares for sale. An older woman had set up a stand away from most of the others. Curious, I walked over.She had images of the Buddha, and items for religious and medical purposes. Talons, hooves, deer skulls, bundles of herbs and animal horns.
Bottles of herb tinctures. Bark. Dried leaves.
I was pulled like a magnet to her strange pairs of roots. I couldn’t tear my eyes from them. I felt fascinated, and somehow frightened, too. She’d tied male and female roots together. They’d been carved to accentuate their human forms.
The pairs called to me on some strange level…. “What are they for?” I asked. Ley explained to me that they are placed in a home to protect it and the family that lives there.
“Would you ask her how much they cost?” I asked. She gave me a sharp look and hesitated. “Ten dollars,” she said finally.
“Ten dollars?” I was beyond surprised. $10 is a paltry sum in most parts of the world. Here, in one of the poorest countries on the planet, the price she wanted was outrageous. 
Ley looked confused as well, and talked to her for a while. Her voice rose. The two discussed the transaction so long that I became uncomfortable. At last he turned to me. “She says, these are their gods, and it would be wrong to sell them to outsiders.”
In an instant, desire to be near the figures left me. “I’m so sorry. Please apologize to her and tell her I meant no disrespect. They are very, very powerful.” Ley translated and she gave me a grudging looking-over.
I’ve thought a lot about that strange encounter with foreign magic. Even my husband says he wondered about me that afternoon; he watched with growing concern as I was drawn to something I didn’t understand. All these years later I recall the power that emanated from those male and female roots, and I tremble.
NOTES:  For a little while longer, anyway. Hydroelectric dams are being built by northern neighbor China, with breathtakingly little regard or concern for how this impacts the ecosystems further downstream.  She purposely asked for a ridiculously large amount of money.
On one of our return trips to Laos we finally explored the waterfalls outside of Luang Prabang. I hadn’t wanted to go earlier, afraid it would be an over-run tourist spot. How wrong I was, because we visited a truly beautiful natural area. We used a simple open taxi to get there and then headed up past lovely pools.
The trail became misty with spray from the waterfalls the higher we hiked.
Uwe vanished with his camera, and I made my way on increasingly slippery wooden steps to the top.
My glasses kept fogging over with the permanent veils of falling water. At the summit I savored the peaks and the impossibly dense jungle all around. I had the views to myself.
I took my time on my way back down, not wanting to rush. To the side of the trail I discovered a salamander whose brown, green, and rusty tan colors exactly matched the layers of fallen leaves, twigs and wet rocks. I crouched slowly and held my breath, and the two of us were companionably still. No chance to reach for my camera; the lens would have been useless anyway. Instead, it’s one of those moments that stays fixed in memory. I’d never seen a newt in those colors, and I’m sure I never will again.
Back down at the pools I found Uwe, ecstatic as he photographed a spider as large as the span of my hand.
A water wheel bore witness to the fact that the quiet area is used.
On our trip back to town we stopped to give another taxi a tow.
They faced a long drive to the neighboring state of Karnataka. The tour office had assigned them a guide. Nupur was a tiny woman of four foot eleven inches and shining, thick black hair. Nupur wore a red dot between her brows and her sari like the robes of a queen.
Their minivan came with a driver and his son. Each time they reached a bad place on the dirt roads the small boy jumped out to assess it. Kim saw deep potholes and was glad for their combined care.
The sun beat down. They drove through parched countryside that needed the rain the monsoons would bring. Each home they passed had water sprinkled in the dirt before the door to keep down dust.
Finally, they reached Hampi, and Hampi looked nothing like the beaches of Goa. Hampi was the surface of the moon. The landscape consisted of huge sandstone boulders with the Tungabhadra River running through it. Here the Hindu god Shiva was the consort of Pampa, goddess of the river.
When they saw where the bus was heading, everyone gasped.
“Holy cows! Look at the tower!” Greg exclaimed.
The Virupaksha temple was a pyramid topped with a spire and a red flag. Impressive from a distance, up close the temple was gargantuan. It towered a hundred and fifty feet above their heads.
Architects had carved the creamy white stone into decorative levels. Exotic gods. Strange goddesses. Female figures spraddle-legged and touching themselves.
A gigantic wooden chariot was parked in the temple’s huge courtyard. Long yellow garlands draped the wagon. The top of the chariot hid under a multi-colored cloth. It ballooned out in wide stripes of reds, yellows, oranges and blues. High up, carved lions raised their paws and carved horses reared.
“Tonight this chariot will carry the god Shiva to the river for the Nandi Purnima,” Nupur informed them. “It’s a Nandi full moon. Nandi’s the bull who attends Shiva, so this is extra auspicious.”
The tour group left the minivan and gawked, mouths open.
I’d wanted to see Dubrovnik for years. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. Dubrovnik is one of the most intact – and surely one of the most beautiful – walled cities on the planet. It was strategically built on the Adriatic coast, has spectacular scenery, and provides settings for one of my favorite shows, Game of Thrones. It had to be perfect!
Note to Self: In the future, question any place that sounds too good to be true. It usually is.
Aw, come on. King’s Landing! Cercei’s Walk of Shame! Tyrion sightings!
This trip was going to be awesome!
I frequently meet a friend on her way back through Europe as she travels around the world. We travel well together, enjoy exploring new spots, and always have great luck with our plans. We’ve never booked a bad hotel.
Note to Self:Always and never are adjectives doomed to fail at some point.
I flew to Dubrovnik a day early and went hunting for the hotel. I dragged a suitcase up the stone stairs of narrow alleys. And down the stone stairs of narrow alleys. And then back up the stone stairs of narrow alleys. No sign over the doorway, no answer when I repeatedly knocked. Not one person who could give me any information.
It was really hot, humid and sticky, and overcrowded with tourists now heading to the outdoor restaurants for supper. I sat beside my suitcase on the hard stone steps, trying to stay calm (forget about cool or collected – at that point I was drenched in sweat). I dug out the phone number for the hotel contact.
Note to Self: Never, ever leave home without your cell phone fully charged and that list of phone numbers close at hand.
“You’re here?” a male voice exclaimed. “Someone will be there with a key in ten minutes.” i was still waiting over half an hour later. A pleasant young man finally arrived. Why hadn’t I called when I arrived at the airport to let someone know to come meet me?
Note to Self: They never suggested that we do this. Regardless, it was their the guests’ fault.
He let me into thehotel… a home converted into apartments. We’d requested separate beds; the room only contained one. I didn’t mind sharing, but the hotelroom furnishings were neither as advertised nor promised. The air conditioner had been installed so that it blew directly into the head of the bed.
Note to Self: Check carefully when booking rooms. Sometimes Southern and East Europeans have loose definitions for things, including accommodations and measurements of time.
What about the included breakfast? I asked. No worries, I just needed to head down the steep stairs a few streets, turn into the main road, and find the café the hotel apartment rooms had made arrangements with to feed guests.
Relieved to finally be in my hotel lodging I showered, changed clothes, and went out to find dinner. No time left for sightseeing.
The next morning, I eventually found the café after going in the wrong direction and hungrily gazing at a half-dozen other breakfast spots. “Where’s your voucher?” the waiter asked. “Uhh, I wasn’t told I needed one,” I stuttered, and retrieved the hotel booking invoice I luckily had with me. The waiter vanished with it and consulted a colleague. He returned with a different menu with fewer choices. I ate a passable breakfast and headed off to walk the city walls.
Now, this was more like it! Not a bad view in any direction and it was early enough not to feel the oppressive heat already settling on the city. What a shame there were so many other people crowding the ramparts.
Back at the room I waited for my friend to arrive. One of the young men showed up and insisted, “No, you don’t need a voucher for breakfast, regardless of what the café says. And you should have waited and walked the city walls late in the afternoon when the cruise ships have left again.” So why didn’t he tell me this yesterday? But, I thought, it would have meant traversing the walls for two hours in 90-degree peak afternoon heat, so I didn’t speak up.
He wouldn’t let me pay with a credit card. Cash only. We’d have to wait until his associate came the next day as my friend hadn’t arrived yet. When we paid, he couldn’t make change. He promised to bring it by later; if we weren’t there, he’d put the money they owed us under the room door.
The man and the money never showed up.
The last morning, I tried to get out of bed and thought I was going to throw up. I had developed benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) from the extreme heat, not enough fluids, and cold air blowing on my face all night.
Just before we checked out I wrote a curt note indicating where to have the money deposited that they still owed us. As we were leaving we ran into a cleaning woman. “Oh! The boys couldn’t make it over yesterday. They asked me to give it to you.” We then headed off to the airport with money we no longer had any time to use.
Note to Self: Make sure to carry lots of small bills to make change next time you go back. If you ever go back. 2nd Follow-up Note to Self: Cash-only vacation options are a really bad idea. 3rd Follow-up Note to Self: Do Not Sleep Directly Under an Air-Conditioner. Ever.
I remind myself Dubrovnik is all romantic corners and silly tourists taking selfies.
and the European Cup soccer matches!
I’ll tell you another time about how I almost didn’t make it on our plane going home. Or why my friend was late getting to the hotel room. She’d been charged $600 for her rental car, dinged when a gang tried to scam her with a staged accident.
I shall be forever grateful that we were there together. We even laugh about parts of the trip to Dubrovnik, and figure those few days used up more combined residual bad travel karma (and available cash) than any trip we’ve ever gone on.
Note to Self: Re-read this post before planning the next trip!
Kim’s view was simultaneously filled and obstructed. The front courtyard and Hampi Bazaar Road were crammed with bodies. Worshippers raised their arms to touch Shiva’s massive chariot. Mandapams, porch-like structures once used for commerce or the homes of wealthy traders, lined the sides of the street. Pilgrims claimed spots in them, trying to find shade.
Women in brilliant saris walked past. Old crones with henna-patterned arms carried small children. Turbaned men sampled fruit from a pyramid of dates. An all-white cow rested serenely on a pile of garbage. A painted bus had parked in the dust; a pilgrim dozed on one of the seats with his bare feet sticking out through the open window.
Kim peeked in a shop selling cheap clothes and plastic sunglasses. When she turned, she banged her head on a string of water bottles hanging in the doorway. Sunlight reflected off the mirrored insets of embroidered bags and shirts in the next little shop.
She pushed on through the crowds, trying to spot her group. A couple in a patch of shade looked up as she walked past. Their oxen leant against the cool stones of an ancient wall. The bovine pair had their forelegs tucked under them. Their curved horns were painted crimson and capped in metal. Magenta pompoms with orange and blue tassels hung from the tips; a pile of cow shit steamed.
In the middle of the road a clump of pilgrims whispered among themselves, pointing. A man crouched in the dirt. He was perhaps thirty years old, mustachioed and handsome. Thick hair brushed across the white bands smeared on his forehead. He wore a peach-orange cotton shirt and pants. The man knelt, barefoot, on all fours on a rug. A big copper pot dappled with white streaks and red dots balanced on his shoulders. A string of beads wound around the pot’s lip. A long cobra slid clockwise over the beads, flicking an orange tongue. Hands darted out from the crowd to touch the snake and drop coins into the pot.