Real Friends Don’t Care About Your Smell

I don’t mean to sound like a broken record, but we had a really kick ass day at Pinatubo.

By the end of the day, we’d trekked for a total of seven hours in humid weather, charged recklessly through muddy terrain on monstrous 4 x 4s, swum in a mineral-filled volcano crater and then proceeded to sun ourselves (and our clothes) dry on the trek to our bus back to Manila.

Added to the 24 hours or so since we had a shower, at some point during the day, even I had to concede that we did not exactly smell like a bed of roses.

You see, one of the biggest arguments Jo and I often have revolves around the issue of smell. Jo, after decades of intense training at being a female, is able to whiff out a day-old sock from two doors down.

I, like many of my counterparts, lack the ability to detect a year-old sock even if we were wearing them. By counterparts, I mean other guys who cannot smell.

I believe that this is a evolutionary development that arised from the millennia-old “Whomever Runneth Outteth of Clean Underwear First Needeth to do the Laundry” war. No prize for guessing who was the winner in this conflict. We promptly proceeded to take away the “eth” from the end of all words. Now you know.

Like I said, somewhere along the way, even I thought that we smelt “funkier than a mosquitoes’ tweeter”.

You can understand why we were at least a little hesitant about meeting up with Nina from Just Wandering upon our return to Manila on this particular day. Nina had been invaluable in providing information when we were planning our trip through the Philippines and one of the things we definitely wanted to do in Manila was to meet up with her.

We were hoping she would like us, and not run in the opposite direction holding her nose.

To be fair, we did warn her that we smelled less than pleasant. She took that in stride and did not even flinch when we met up with her.

We went to Abe’s for some authentic Filipino food. Any misgivings we still had about the taste of Filipino cuisine was thrown out along with any care we had about how the other patrons in the classy restaurant would perceive the two foul smelly, muddy ragmuffins in their midst.

It made Jo NOT care.

The food was that good.

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To top off the night, Nina sent us off with a care package complete with the “Best of” of Filipino snacks. We were touched beyond belief.

It proved to us yet again that travelling is one of the best ways to forge unexpected friendships with random strangers. Friendships that are surprisingly strong. Friendships that transcend borders such as race, language, religion, nationality and smell.

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Sidenote: Do check out Nina’s AWESOME (and multiple-award winning) blog at “Just Wandering”. Also her latest project  PHL360° that showcases the various too gorgeous-for-words travel destinations in Philippines through the eyes of Philippines’ own celebrity bloggers.

Like a Phoenix

I wrote about the Boracay Phoenix Fire Dancers in the last post, but I don’t think the photos did justice to how awesome these ladies were.

And because nobody asked for it, I’ve decided to upload some of the videos that we took during their performances. I swear… some of the moves these girls pulled would not have looked out of place in a Street Fighter game or a Dragonball manga.

Is it wrong that I think they looked damn sexy when they are doing it as well?

I think they are exceptionally spectacular when they are dancing in a big group. And I think 0:30 showed just how damn skillful they are.

My favourite performance, however, was this rather subdued one to the tune of Beyonce’s “Listen”. The cigarette lighting trick at 2:00 must be one of the most awesome party trick ever!

The (not too) Fast and the Furious

Our last stop in the China leg of our trip was Xishuangbanna (西双版纳).

Xishuangbanna (hur hur) is in the south of China. It neighbours Laos, and is as tropical as it gets in China in winter. In fact, it was so warm that Jo and I were able to walk around wearing ONLY a T shirt and long pants.

Since it was the last stop, we wanted to do something we’ve never done before. We decided to rent a motorbike to explore the outskirts of the city. No, we were not suicidally sad because we had to leave China, we were just badly traumatised by our bus ride from Yuanyang to Xishuangbanna.

We thought the traffic in Xishuangbanna was fairly benign compared to the rest of China (only nine vehicles would try to occupy a three lane carriage way), and since most of the attractions are outside of the city, we thought we could have an adventure getting there as well.

Any hopes I had of being a Hell’s Angel for a day was quickly dashed when we were handed our motor bike – a mechanical wonder that looked like the bastard child of Transformers’ Bumblebee and (I’m being very kind here) Dora the Explorer’s magical rainbow tricycle.

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Hell's Angel v 0.01

I was understandably finicky just before taking to the roads. You see, I am not classically trained in the handling of a motorcycle per se, in the sense that I do not personally own a motorcycle license. The only training I had was six years ago. I spent a grand total of ten minutes with a fifteen year old Cambodian boy. THAT particular road trip ended with me and my passenger in a Cambodian ditch with our bike on top of us.

Jo, understanding how nervous I was, tried to calm me down by constantly whispering to me words of encouragement.

“LOOK OUT FOR THAT CAR!!”

“YOU JUST RAN PAST THAT RED LIGHT!”

“WE ARE GOING TO DIE!!”

By “whispering”, of course I meant “screaming at the top of her lungs”.

Eventually, WE settled down and managed to spend a rather enjoyable morning tracing the Mekong River.

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Fun fact: We didn't know the Mekong runs through China before this

That should have been the end of our adventures for the day, but we couldn’t leave well enough as it is.We thought we could stretch our luck just a little bit by visiting an elephant sanctuary that was supposedly easily accessible via the national highway.

We got on the highway. At this point, I was comfortable enough to go a little faster.

I went full throttle.

The engine roared alive.

I hit a top speed of 50km/h (approximately 693 gallons).

Regardless, we felt alive and free. It didn’t matter that numerous tour coaches overtook us on the roads. We even waved hello back at some of the friendly cars that honked as they passed us (Ok… Jo waved back. I was too busy gripping on to my handle bar for dear life).

Then we hit a toll booth…

A toll booth manned by badass-looking police officers.

Badass-looking police officers who told us in no uncertain terms that SCOOTERS (NOT motorbikes) like ours are not allowed on the highway. Especially SCOOTERS with riders that do not have any helmets on…

We were just thankful they did not ask to look at our licenses.(I was already wondering if $5 would be too much to buy our way outta trouble)

Since we didn’t want to get thrown in a Chinese lockup, we high tailed it back down the highway.

At this point in time, I actually felt kinda badass myself.

We were rebels!

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Jo thinks the best way to mitigate the illegal-ness of our actions was to take a self portrait while riding

We were speeding (sortof) illegally down a highway with the wind in our hair.

You know the awfully cliched term that “fact is sometimes more hilarious than fiction”? This was NOT one of those times.

Just as we were riding the fastest we could away from a night’s stay in a dingy Chinese prison… our front tyre punctured.

Yup… We were stuck in the middle of the highway, trying to look inconspicuous with our bright yellow motorbike scooter.

At that point, we decided that letting the rental company/police know that we were illegally on the highway without a license might not be the best of ideas. So the best solution we could come up with was to Push the Bloody Bike home, and avert our gazes when the traffic police drove by.

Again, situation not helped by bright yellow bike scooter.

Somehow, we managed to get the scooter to a service stop after only one hour of pushing.

At that point I was willing to say “Xishuangbanna this!” and curl up in a little ball back at the hostel.

End to End control

I’m a little late to the party but I’ve just finished reading Steve Jobs’ autobiography by Walter Isaacson.

It’s a fascinating read.

One of the things that struck me the most was the big ideological battle between Steve Jobs’ idea for a close operating system with end to end control by the manufacturing company and Bill Gates’ preference for an open system that allows multiple end users to tinker with and make changes to the basic operating system provided by Microsoft.

I’ve never owned a single Apple product in my life (*GASP*) because even though the products look absolutely gorgeous, the tight control by the Company feels a tad too Big Brother-ly for my comfort.

While we were in Yuan Yang (元阳), we stayed in a place called Pu Gao Lao Village (普高老寨 )(yes… Pu Gao Lao) in the Duoyishu area (多依树)(yes… Duoyishu).

Beside sounding like a sailors’ favourite adjective, Pu Gao Lao is a place that people in Yuan Yang find “remote” and “difficult to get to”. To put things in perspective, Yuan Yang is four hours of bumpy/windy mountain road away from the next nearest township.

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Yup...STILL wearing THAT jacket

While we were in Pu Gao Lao, everything we ate/drank/shat/slept (吃喝拉睡) was pretty much controlled by the two Guesthouses in the village – Sunny Guest House and Jacky’s Guest House. (We eventually chose Sunny through a very deliberate and extensive research process of walking into the village and stumbling upon it first)

I know it’s a bit of a stretch to compare computer operating systems and the workings of a tourism spot, but I think that the two Guesthouses having a monopoly on the end-to-end experience of its tourists is comparable to the Apple philosophy. The user has no control and no alternative, so the service providers don’t need to give a flying sh*t what their customers think.

Luckily for us, they did.

Even though we asked for the cheapest private accommodation, we were given a room with a gorgeous view of the rice terraces…from the side. The owners were lovely and never behaved like they were the only ones that could provide us with a bed for the night. They could, but they didn’t.

One of the biggest (and most important) things the Guest Houses control was definitely the food.

We were told that the Guest House serves dinner, but it was not compulsory for us to eat there. Seeing that the alternative to that was to chew on raw (and unripe) rice stalks from the terraces, it wasn’t that much of a choice to us.

Dinner at Sunny’s was served at a communal dining room. Again, they could’ve charged us the moon and served us whatever food they wanted (including raw and unripe rice stalks). We’d have no choice but to eat it, but again, thank goodness they didn’t.

Instead, for a princely sum of 30Rmb, the owner took to the kitchen and churned out dish after dish after dish of wickedly tasty food using herbs and vegetables plucked from his own backyard. (Yes, the rice was from his own terrace too. Yes, they taste superb. No, there was no taste of feet from the thousands of tourists trampling over them)

He was still merrily preparing dessert when one of the guests shouted that his stomach was going to explode from all the food.

My key take away is that this demonstrates a closed system can only work if the owner of the system cares enough to give a flying sh*t about what his customers want instead of just obsessing about the bottom line.

Having said that, I still believe there’s a lot of room for abuse in a closed system.

Exhibit A: The only bus service that could bring us the full 13 hours to Xishuangbanna (yes..Xishuangbanna)

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Nope...that's not a smile on Jo's face

No, I am not using this post to make a commentary on the public transport system in Singapore.

Or am I?

Rice!

I know, I know, the last picture in the previous update looks like mere puddles of water. So, I guess you’ll just have to take my word that they are magnificent.

How magnificent?

Let’s just say that Jo woke up willingly at 5am to check out the sunrise over the terraces.

Nuff Said.

Yes… Jo is still wearing THAT jacket…

Anyway, this is gonna be one of those posts that will not have (too many) words. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

A sense of scale… see the puny human. Hulk Smash! (I HAD to do that!)

Spot the Lone Man again. It was starting to become one of our favorite activities

After seeing a few of the farmer dudes dancing along the terraces, I just had to try it out too. Surprise, surprise but it is… NOT AS EASY AS IT LOOKS!

A cherry blossom in the middle of the rice terrace was perfect for multiple shots with different filter

Yuan Yang at Sunrise

The clouds rolling in made the rice fields look more… magical

One More Time…

Yup, we have quite the crush on Yuan Yang.