May 6, 2013

The Post You Have Been Waiting For... (Unless Your Name is Anna L. or Pam M.)

This is the post you've been waiting for. Just admit it. This whole time, we've been posting about diving and yoga and UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and how fantastic life is, you've secretly been waiting for our WTF-This-Place-Is-Awful post, haven't you? Well, here it is, in all its bizarre glory. (Anna L. and Pam M., you probably do not want to read the rest of this post.)

The other day, we took a "quick" train ride in Vietnam from Danang to Dong Hoi because we were headed to Phang Nga National Park. (More on these places later.) We couldn't get on the upper class train (with a padded bed/berth and a MUCH faster route), so we booked the regular train. No worries. The train ride was (supposed to be) 7 hours - something we can handle with little or no luxury. We're seasoned pros by this point, right? (We took 15 trains in India!)

Tom and I were each in the top berths with our faces about 6 inches from the roof of the train and the air conditioning vent blowing nasty, stale air at our faces, but we pulled out our sleep sheets, covered our eyes and managed to fall asleep after our early morning departure. About 4 hours later, we woke up when we noticed the train had been stopped for a lengthy period (with turned out to be a 3.5 hour stop, turning our 7 hour ride into a nearly 11 hour ride) and because our train cabin had filled with smoke (of the cigarette sort). I glanced down into the bottom of our cabin and saw that the bottom berth now sat 6 ticket takers, all shirtless, all smoking cigarettes (right next to the huge "No Smoking" sign), and all gambling. Because smoking isn't technically allowed and they were breaking their own rules, they had shut the door of the cabin, turning it into the Cancer Car of Doom. Tom and I locked eyes across the train car and silently laughed and laughed and laughed until we were crying. Of course, it's hard to tell if we were crying from laughing or if our eyes were just watering from the smoke. It was like being in Vegas but with fewer hookers.

Eventually, we climbed down from our berth and the guys (who seemed really nice), realizing we were uncomfortable but not speaking any English, moved to another cabin to resume their game. Tom and I crawled down to the bottom berth to read and I kept hearing this really strange noise - like a wild beast - coming from behind me. A friendly guy who had been talking to us told me it was a the toilet. I kept asking him to repeat it and he just kept saying, "There's a cat in the toilet." Assuming it's a communication error, I just kind of smiled and nodded. But, it does sound a lot like a cat, so I'm not quite sure. In the meantime, there's a tiny little mouse running around the floor of our berth and it keeps running over Tom's feet and he keeps squealing. We're giggling when I hear the weird noise again, but it sounds like it's coming from below my seat. So, I bravely look under the seat, and you will not believe what I found. There was a..........................................................................................................(wait for it).........



As in, a LIVE bag of kittens. It was a mesh bag, tied at the top, and there were probably 10 kittens smooshed into the bag, all trying to get out and mewling like crazy. The mouse kept running in front of the bag, tormenting the cats, and they were going nuts, clawing around to get out. I've never seen anything like it and BAM, just like that, I had my WTF-This-Place-Is-Awful moment. (Side note: I adored Vietnam, so I don't think it's awful. It was just a tough moment.)

So I start the, "Whose bag of cats is this?!?!" routine in my best accusatory voice (What, doesn't everyone know this routine?!?!) and no one will claim them. And then, even though I know the answer, I ask what the cats are for. The nice guy (who wasn't actually assigned to our cabin) confirms that they're for eating. Awesome. 

Now, I'm really trying hard to deal with this kind of stuff. In India, they all thought it was disgusting and absurd that we eat cows (which they consider holy but I think are delicious), so I'm really trying to not judge Vietnamese people (and other SE Asians) for eating dogs and cats. It seems like a no-brainer to them. So I'm adjusting. I mean, I'm not going to eat Fido or anything, but I'm (mostly) not judging. I once had a friend in San Francisco who was from the Philippines. She would get so annoyed when a homeless person with a pet dog would ask her for money on the streets of San Francisco. Her response was always something along the lines of, "Um, you're not THAT hungry. You still have a living dog." I got what she meant. To the owner of these cats, they were nothing more than livestock and, if you've ever seen the way cows or pigs or chickens are transported and treated when they're involved in mass production, you would realize we treat our food the same way.

BUT - I feel about these cats the same way I feel about cows and chickens and pigs. While they're alive, can't they have a decent life?!?! (We try to get all of our meat in SF from local and humane sources, so we try to walk the walk.) 

So I start lecturing everyone about how the cats should be treated. No one speaks English. The cats are staring at me with big, baby cat eyes and it's awful (and I don't even like cats). Everyone was looking at me like a crazy person (and not understanding a word I was saying). By this point, some of the cats (with no food, water, fresh air, or litter box) have peed on themselves and the berth STINKS the way I imagine a house on Hoarders does. I keep lecturing, waving my arms emphatically about animal rights and how even livestock deserve food and water. At one point, the conversation goes like this:

Me: "I'm okay with the fact that you eat cats, but…"
Nice Local Guy Who Thinks I'm Crazy: (Interrupting me) "We eat dogs too!"
Me: "Um, okay. I'm okay with that, too. But while they're alive, can't they be treated fairly?"
Nice Local Guy Who Thinks I'm Crazy: Gives a confused head tilt.

Everyone starts watching me and nice guy tells me they are all convinced I'm going to try to release the cats while we're stopped like an homage to Free Willy - victoriously releasing the cats from the window of the smoky train car, blessing them with another day of life as I toss them to freedom. I'd be like the Abraham Lincoln of cat livestock everywhere! As I think about doing exactly what they're worried I'll do, I hear Tom, in the top berth, laughing so hard he can't breathe. Apparently, I had now also convinced him that I'm a crazy person. And that is how I spent 11 hours in a smoke-filled train cabin with a bag of pee-covered cats. The super glamorous life, right?

There's a blog I love called Almost Fearless about a family of 4 who is constantly moving all around the world. They're hilarious and resourceful and open-minded and incredibly honest in their descriptions of the good and bad parts of traveling and living as nomads. As a description on the blog, they write something like, "It's not always sweetened milk and fruit shakes, but mostly it is." And that's how I feel about this trip. For us, it's not always hill country treks, beach bumming, or relaxing with friends on a tropical farm. Most of the time it is. But sometimes, it's a bag of cats.

I didn't take a photo of the cats because I just couldn't bear to. But picture them with huge eyes, staring at me, mewing "Free meeeeeee-ow!"

But, here are some cute pictures of various cats in various bags, all looking adorable and all likely to NOT be eaten. This is definitely, 100% NOT the way the cats looked in the bag on the train, but I like to end things on a positive note.


  1. Hi Stephanie!
    We've never met, but my boyfriend and I are good friends of Kristy and Dave Cross. She told me about your blog because we are heading to Tanzania next week for a month. I had read your blog from beginning to end and laughed along with you guys. Your packing lists and pictures were so helpful too!! I love reading about your travel adventures and if you're going to make it to Africa I'd love to share any tips with you once we return! After reading your blog I was inspired to start my own travel blog. We will just be in Africa for a month, but there's something about living vicariously through other people's travel stories that is so fufulling. Here's our blog if you want to check it out. Hopefully it's full of pictures and amazing memories like yours while we are there! Safe travels!
    Aimee Agosti and Laren Loveless

    1. Aimee, That's awesome! I will totally check out your blog! We're actually headed to South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe at the end of June. (It's not "blog official" yet, but will be soon. If you have any travel questions I can help with, let me know! (Oh - and tell Kristy and Dave they need to come see us on the road!)

  2. Yes we do! Working on getting that vacation time so we can come meet you. BTW, You've started a new phrase. Bag-o-cats. I've been using it anytime something sucks or when something bad happens. "Well sometimes life is a bag-o-cats" It makes me giggle so then I'm not so sad anymore.

    1. The Bag-o-Cats certainly puts the minor travel annoyances in perspective.... ;)