Friday, April 30, 2010

I Can't Feel the Bed Bugs Bite

Really, I can't feel them gnaw on me and their bites don't make me itch or cause a bump. I found this out the hard way.

On my first research trip to Malaysia for Lonely Planet I did a bunch of pre-research, trolling the web for comments about hotels and hostels around the country. When it came time for me to book a cheap backpackers for myself in Kuala Lumpur I was hit with a terrible realization: nearly every place I looked at had bed bug complaints. Now at this point, as far as I thought I knew, I had never slept with a bed bug and I really, really didn't want to start, not ever in my whole life.

All parasites gross me out but bed bugs are the worst - I mean, is anything more disgusting than having bugs crawling over you all night sucking your blood? No, there isn't. A little mosquito buzzing in your ear, micro-bugs surreptitiously living on your scalp or even a quick working leech, they are all parasitic ladies and gentlemen compared with the invasive and crafty bed bug.

So I booked the only place I could find within my budget that didn't seem to have a bed bug problem. It was depressing, windowless, next to the bus station and a few notches below mediocre, but that all seemed OK as long as there were no bugs. I was so tired from traveling when I arrived that I went straight to my room to go to sleep. But wait . . . . what's that in the corner?

It was a tiny beetle-like bug and I was sure it was evil. This was a bed bug, maybe - or maybe not. I had seen computer terminals in the guesthouse lobby so decided I'd bring out the little beast and see if I could ID him online. I'd been traveling for about 30 hours at this point, was dehydrated, hungry and could hardly keep my eyes open but I tried my best to compare the little squirmy guy I had in a napkin with an online picture. He kind of looked like a bed bug and kind of didn't. So I brought him up to the front desk and asked the guy at the counter.

"No," the guy said. "Not a bed bug. We don't have bed bugs here."

OK, cool. So I went to bed.

Now you're probably waiting for the punchline here about how I got brutally mauled during the night, but that didn't happen. I slept peacefully then spent the next two years traveling back and forth to Southeast Asia without incident. During that time I saw dozens of people with severely bitten arms and legs - but I never got bitten, not once. I began to think I was charmed, miraculously getting all the bed bug-free rooms from riding on some groovy travel Zen.

But then it happened: I was on Tioman Island, once again in Malaysia, in a perfectly OK room on the beach. I'd been in the room two days already but the last morning I had to get up in the dark, early morning to catch a boat out. My alarm went off and I turned on the light next to my bed. Bed bugs were everywhere, crawling around the bed, trying to escape up the mosquito net and under my sheet. I almost threw up. I checked myself but I didn't have a single bite. I had slept soundly and hadn't been disturbed by them at all until now.

There was nothing I could do. I quickly wrote a note: "You have a severe bed bug problem in room #4!" and left it at the front desk then went and caught my boat. I felt violated and dirty. While on the boat I called my favorite author buddy Brandon in Borneo who icked and eeewed with me. He decided I just had some weird travel writer gene mutation that made me impervious to bed bug bites - this made me laugh and feel better. When I got home I burned my (luckily old and falling apart) backpack and all my (luckily old and falling apart) clothes.

Who knows how many times I've slept with bed bugs? I now have a permanent case of the creepy crawlies and an annoying habit of waking up at 3am just to turn the light on to make sure the bed is free of blood-suckers.

The new Lonely Planet Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei guide has a whole boxed text dedicated on how to avoid and/or deal with bed bugs - I seriously rallied for this addition. There is also some great info on the web including a very well-informed blog post from Health Conscious Travel that inspired me to write this story. Check it out. Even luxury hotels get bed bugs and it's better to follow protocol than to bring bugs home - the ultimate bug nightmare!

If you're still curious, here's a short video on the bed bug's horrific come back from the perspective of an etymologist and an exterminator cowboy:

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Punu Pua'atoro: Spam of the Gods

Poisson Cru, a delicate and healthy raw fish salad, is the star of French Polynesian cuisine and most visitors think of it as the country's national dish. Tahitians do eat lots of poisson cru but beyond restaurant menus and within family kitchen walls, the most popular dish in the country is by far Punu Pua'atoro, canned corned beef and Tahiti's answer to Spam.

Chock full of fat and nitrites, Punu Pua'atoro is deliciously salty and addictively tasty. It's also very easy to prepare. At home most folks fry it up in a pan with onions and serve it with roast breadfruit. At picnics the Punu Pua'atoro tin is heated directly in the fire next to a charring breadfruit. In fact, the meat is so linked to breadfruit that I've heard stories of doctors who have told local diabetics and cholesterol sufferers to stop eating breadfruit - they know that if people don't eat breadfruit, they won't eat Punu Pua'atoro either. It sounds nicer to tell someone to stop eating their fruits and veggies than something meaty and yummy.

Punu Pua'atoro in the no-nonsense Tahitian language literally means "horned pig in metal." Even though most people are now aware that salty canned meat isn't really good for them, a near mystical, back-to-the-roots aura surrounds it as a distinctly Polynesian dish. If you eat Punu Pua'atoro you're a local; if you turn your nose up at it, you're kind of an asshole. It's the cool kid thing to bring along on picnics and everyone will nod in approval and take a little whether they like it for real or not. It's ironic that what has become a symbol of island cuisine is made from an animal that hardly exists in Polynesia, doesn't even have it's own real Tahitian name and makes so many people sick and overweight. But there you have it, like smoking cigarettes, sometimes being hip and sensory enjoyment takes priority of over reason.

I happen to love Punu Pu'atoro but eat it only a few times a year, mostly at picnics with my cool back-to-the-roots Tahitian buddies. Yeah, I admit, I care a little about my image but I also do love the salty, fatty taste when sopped up on a piece of hot, chestnut-like breadfruit. I don't buy Punu Pua'atoro and it makes me feel sick every time I do eat it, but I relish those moments around the fire pit, eating just cooked yummy food to the sound of ukulele.

Friday, April 23, 2010

When Fear Causes Bad Decisions: A Scary Border Crossing Story

It sounded easy: take a short taxi ride from the village of Lethem, Guyana to the Takatu River, hire a boat to cross the river, then wait for a bus on the other side (Brazil) to go to the Bonfim bus terminal with connections to Boa Vista.

I took the taxi and hired the boat, no problem. On the Brazil side of the river there was a graffiti-covered plywood bus shelter with a crowd of greasy guys and presumably prostitutes hanging around. They all glanced at me when I arrived and wearily put down my pack, but no one said hello despite my hopeful smile. A taxi driver came up and gestured if I wanted a ride. No, I said with confidence, I was waiting for the bus. Soon two men arrived by boat from where I'd just come from across the river, got in the cab right away and drove off.

About twenty minutes later I was still waiting for the bus and was now feeling the gaze of several of the men on me as I uncomfortably sat alone, the only foreigner and obviously a tourist. I smiled at the prostitute sitting next to me and asked her if she knew when the bus was coming. She said "soon," very reassuringly and patted me on the knee. Meanwhile several more groups of men crossed the river from the Guyana side and snagged taxis that were arriving regularly, about every 15 minutes or so.

After about an hour a thought crossed my mind: "No one knows I'm here. I'm at a dodgy border in no man's land all by myself. If some threw me in a car and drove away right now no one would ever know."

A guy who had been hanging out by the taxi area seemed to read my mind and came over to me.

"The bus should be here soon," he said in English. "The one that was supposed to be here an hour ago didn't show up but that happens sometimes." He was friendly. This made me feel better.

So I waited another hour. It was the afternoon now and I still had a long trip ahead of me. Plus I was starting to feeling scared. There were some pretty sleazy people at the bus stop and I knew that I was looking more vulnerable by the moment.

I started planning what I would do if it got too late to get to Boa Vista. I'd have to go back across the river to Guyana but I wasn't sure they'd let me back in without a Brazil stamp in my passport. What would the border guards do with a lone woman at sunset who had nowhere to go and was not legally in any country?

Just then the boat guy who had taken me across the river saw I was still there and came over looking concerned.

"The last bus to Boa Vista leaves at 4 pm!" he said. "What are you still doing here?"

I explained that I was waiting for the bus. He told me to wait a minute then went and talked to several people by the river.

"There's no bus," he said. "The border guards are blocking it from coming in so you have to take a taxi to the border patrol office then hopefully catch a bus from there."

It seemed obvious to me now that I should have just taken a taxi like everyone else and wondered why I had waited so long. Sometimes fear makes us act dumb - I had been in a semi-paralyzed state not speaking the language and being in a spooky part of a new country. Out of my daze, I got a taxi to the border office for an easy $2 and got stamped into Brazil; the bus arrived within minutes and whisked me to Bonfim. At the Bonfim terminal, I managed to hop on the last bus to Boa Vista just as it was pulling away.

The guidebook and all those helpful people had given me the wrong information. At the border office I talked to the guards and found out that the bus was often blocked there and sometimes it didn't run at all. Luckily, I was re-writing the guidebook and was able to change the details in the book. I guess it's my job to find out all these things the hard way - hopefully my bad decisions in the face of fear will save many people the trouble and desperate questioning I went through that day. As for me, I hope I never get stuck at a bus stop like that ever again.

Note: This picture is of the Essequibo River, not the Takatu River. I was too worried about my safety to take out my camera and take a picture at the border! Still, it looked kind of like this but with more people, more boats and a ghetto bus stop.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Diane Mc Turk: Savior of Giant River Otters & the Coolest Woman I Have Ever Met

If you haven't noticed by now, I really love Guyana. Every day I spent there was an unbelievable adventure, but meeting Diane Mc Turk, an ageless woman who has devoted her life to saving the Amazon's endangered giant river otters, was a highlight.

Diane owns Karanambu Ranch, a cattle ranch, wilderness preserve and eco-lodge at the north of Guyana's Africa-like Rupununi Savannas. Getting there requires either flying or driving overnight from Georgetown then taking a few hour-long boat ride. While visitors are lodged in comfortable, brick and thatch bungalows, it's still not for the faint hearted - the entire time I was there a snake was coiled in the rafters above my bed.

"Hope you don't mind not having the place to yourself," laughed Diane's nephew when he showed me to my room. "Don't worry, he's not poisonous."

Before seeing Diane, visitors usually get to meet her orphans, the playful giant river otters who wiggle around the grounds like happy dogs. Diane often shows up at meal time with the air of a teenager who'd rather be off with her wild and crazy otter friends, but once she starts talking in her documentary quality voice, she gets as carried away by her charm as everyone else and starts to enjoy herself. By the end of a visit most folks have heard wildlife tales that only a lifetime in the Amazon could produce as well as some surprising stories about Diane's 30 years in England when she worked as an actress and at London's Savoy Hotel.

"Men fall in love with her and women want to be her," Diane's niece who manages the ranch told me. "She is irresistible."

It's true, Diane with or without the otters emanates free spirit and a child-like magnetism. She stands as straight and slim as a fashion model and manages to look elegant as she pulls a canoe through the murky, caiman-filled river, feeds dead fish to her otters or wrestles the critters with her strong, apparently bite-proof arms.

Through her un-countable years of work Diane has rehabilitated over 40 otters and her ranch has been used as a research center and springboard for the animal's protection. But nothing beats getting out into the water with Diane and her "kids," Getting to play and frolic in the water with the otters was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life.

Here's a short video I took of Diane and her posse while I was at the ranch:

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Guyana Tales: Getting Friendly With the Neighborhood Caiman

After an over-night bus ride on a pot-holed dirt road through the Amazon jungle my father and I arrived at Iwokrama Field Station, hot, encrusted with dust and exhausted. The river, though opaque and brown, looked incredibly inviting.

"Is it safe to swim?" we asked our guide.

"Yes it's very safe," he assured us. "Just wait about twenty minutes because I have a few things to do before I can watch you."

"Oh we're good swimmers we don't need to be watched!" we said. We're both pretty intrepid travelers not used to having a guide so, although we appreciated his gesture, being babysat was not a cool idea or necessary.

"No, no, please just wait and I'll be down as soon as I can," he insisted

OK, we thought, no need to rock the boat on arrival.

Twenty minutes later the guide accompanied us down to the river. We swam around in the murky water, stretching our bus-stiffened muscles for about half an hour while our new friend watched vigilantly from the dock. Afterwards, we went back to our rooms, showered and went to dinner.

We were served by an absolutely lovely Amer-Indian woman who asked us about our day.

"I hear you went swimming," she said with a sweet smile. "Did you meet Sankar?"


"Yes Sankar, he's our eight-foot caiman."

My dad nearly choked on his manioc.

"Um, no we didn't," I said nervously as my dad gulped water, his face turning red. "Uh, is he friendly?"

"Well I'm not sure really," our friend said in her sing-song voice. "I like to feed him scraps of meat."

And with that she went back to the kitchen.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

How I Stay Sane and Keep Writing: My Waterfall Horse Valley Run

I love travel writing but what people tend to look over is that over half of the job is spent sitting in a chair typing (or, more realistically, gazing blankly) at a computer. Hours and hours of this takes massive amounts of self-motivation stamina and I've found that the only way I can hack it is to get out of the binding chair and exercise daily.

We don't have a gym or anything way out here in the Teahupoo sticks but there are plenty of ways to get the blood pumping. My easy-out especially when I'm on a deadline, is a jog straight out my front door and through my friend's private, gated waterfall valley. It's not just the movement that ignites my brain cells, it's the incredible natural beauty of the place and the local livestock characters I get to meet along the way.

After walking down the main road and saying hello to whatever locals are hanging out by the beach and at Teahupoo's local cafe, I turn into the secret valley. The real beauty starts at a fruit-tree planted area where about 10 horses roam free. I then cross a little river (that can get un-crossable when it rains) and through another gate into a second horse valley. This area is planted with lemon trees and the owners also keep bees here. The horses in this valley are more wild and because of that, I like them more. There are about four foals right now and, although foals are usually skittish there's one that has started being my friend and nuzzled me today with his soft warm nose. There's also Chocolate, the only pony who often comes over to see if I've brought him anything to eat (he's the brown and white guy in the picture).

The only valley animals I am not friends with are the cow and the pig who, it can be said have a "special" relationship. There used to be two cows and two pigs but I think the owners killed and ate one of both. Now the remaining cow keeps a low profile and the pig has decided to act as the bovine's bodyguard. If I see the cow I know the pig is nearby. Our relationship was forever changed for the worse when I surprised the pig once at a bottle-neck between a cliff and the river - the pig charged me. I managed to scramble down the bank towards the river to get out of his way but the "I'm going to fuck you up" look in the pig's eyes is something I'll never forget. The cow (who must weigh hundreds of pounds and has big horns) just watched on disdainfully.

So, once I've passed the cow and pig hurdle I get to the end of the valley where my bravery is rewarded by a waterfall tumbling into a glass-clear stream. Sometimes I stop here and just absorb the energy for a few minutes before turning around to affront my livestock nemeses again for the return.

With all this action I admit, my run is pretty wimpy. I walk a bit, I jog a bit and I stop to pat my horse friends on their noses. But it's an hour of movement, out of my uncomfortable chair and blissfully away from the human world. After this I'm as ready as I'll ever be to tackle the day's work, sit in my uncomfortable chair and stare at a computer screen for hours.

Friday, April 9, 2010

From Paradise to Hell and Back Again: Les Isles du Salut, French Guiana

Back in the 18th century, colonists in French Guiana escaped the malaria and yellow fever of the mainland by heading to the idyllic Iles du Salut (Salvation Islands) about 20 km off the coast. But in the mid-1850s, these three tiny islands were turned into some of the most brutal prison camps that have ever existed; Alcatraz was a humane summer camp experience compared to "Devil's Island," immortalized by Papillion, the semi-fictional auto-biography of Henry Charriere that was later turned into a major film starring Steve McQueen.

The prison camps closed in 1953 and today the islands are once again one of French Guiana's favorite holiday spots - I researched the islands for Lonely Planet with my family in tow back in 2006. As lovely as the island are, the eerie, mostly-abandoned prison buildings weigh heavily on the atmosphere. Graveyards are filled with tombs of prison guards and their families - when prisoners died they were fed to the sharks. Walking through the cicada-filled jungles and along the rocky, grey-blue coastlines, you can't help but believe in ghosts. Every now and then you suddenly get goosebumps even though the heat is invariably sweltering. From stumbling upon an old isolation cell nearly swallowed by vines in the jungle to touring the group cells that were crammed with an inhumane amount of prisoners, it's hard to escape feelings of utter despair for how cruel humans can be. So many people died on these islands and none of them did it well.

Camping is available but we stayed at the only hotel, Auberge des Isles du Salut, set up in the old prison headquarters on Isle Royal, the main island. The welcome was snooty and verging on rude but the colonial plantation-style rooms with louvered
shutters and overhead fan is still one of my most favorite places I've ever stayed. Exquisite French meals (including one of the best fish soups I've ever had) were served on the veranda overlooking the sea. It was a pocket of period charm amidst the brutal history.

Getting to the islands was another treat. We came and left by catamaran sailboat and the trip back to the mainland is a sunset-cruise complete with rum punch.

On island we went fishing off the coast, my kids got very into chasing around agouti (a rodent that looks like a long-legged short-haired guinea pig), and we took a dip (you can't swim) at one of only two spots on the island where the currents are light enough that they won't take you away. Josh even went surfing on a little shark-infested break with some locals.

I'd go back. Despite the weirdness of these islands the Isles du Salut are one of the most interesting places I've ever been.

PS: The last photo isn't of the Auberge it's from an old decaying prison cell! The auberge was much, much nicer :-)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Manahune Live in Taravao

As I've mentioned before, between living in a remote place where there's little night life and having two kids, Josh and I don't get out much. But Saturday night we got a last minute call from some good friends who invited us to go and see one of my favorite Tahitian bands, Manahune play live at my favorite new restaurant in Taravao, Terre et Mer. When you live in Teahupoo and there's something going on a mere 20 minutes away you go!

I've been a fan of Manuhune since I arrived in French Polynesia 15 years ago. The word Manahune in ancient Polynesian society meant "the common people" or "working class." Most Polynesians were and still are in this social bracket - today they are the farmers and fisherfolk who effortlessly retain their traditional culture, mixed with some beer and Coca-Cola. The band really lives up to its name. It's powerful music whether you understand the words or not - it's almost like Polynesian rap backed by rock and a bit of jazz. Listening to the forceful lyrics I couldn't help but think of the orero - strong poetic traditional speeches given by orators at Tahitian dance performances and, if you stretch the meaning of the Polynesian art to modern circumstances, political and religious meetings. Orero are what the common people listen to to guide them and Manuhune in essence, give an orero through song. The music is utterly modern yet purely Polynesian.

No one really danced at the show. We were all sitting at tables enjoying a delicious buffet of poisson cru, gratin-baked mussels, salads and assorted meat dishes. I drank an electric blue frozen cocktail that made me want to get up and dance, but the scene just wasn't right for it. A few guys with beers bobbed around in doorways and the only "scene" happened when a guy kept going up and trying to hug the lead singer/guitar player while he was performing. A bouncer finally had to bring the overzealous fan outside. It was actually kind of cute.

But better than explaining, here's a Manune video of one of their most popular songs "Motu":


Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Bright Underbelly of Teahupoo's Monster Wave

My husband Josh Humbert has probably spent as much time below Teahupoo's infamously scary surf break has he has on top of it. Sometimes he brings home fish he's speared and other times he brings home stunning photos like this one. I love this different angle and otherworldly feel of what is one of the world's most photographed waves. Josh says he wanted to capture the beauty of all the cracks in the reef spreading from the break. This day (this Tuesday) the waves were good sized, the sea was glassy and the sun was in the perfect position to light it all up.

To see what the wave looks like from the surface check out my Lonely Planet video at


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