saleem ahmed

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in preparation for my return to la paz, bolivia, i have updated and uploaded new information and photographs regarding past and current projects.

check them out here!

mobile camera obscura

postcard micro-business 

vendingEDUCATION

i am heading back to bolivia. third time’s a charm.

Sunrise on a Volcano

Peaking just over 3,000 meters, Mount Agung towers over the island of Bali. Its dark, ominous outline fades under the cover of puffy, cotton ball clouds during the day. An active volcano hidden from the thousands of tourists and residents below.  

Although Agung is known to occasionally belch gases and ash from within, the volcano has not erupted since 1963-1964. Throughout the year, Indonesian guides now lead daring adventure-seekers up the steep journey to see a sunrise of a lifetime. 

Our group of seven departs at 11:45pm from the free-spirited town of Ubud. We must drive a little under 2 hours to reach the base of the volcano, to meet our two Balinese guides. While we wait in a parking lot, we realize how unprepared we are for the cold and wet weather that has suddenly approached. The lucky ones are handed headlamps. The others are stuck with handheld flashlights.

We follow a series of spiraled, moss-covered stairs to a temple at the base of the volcano. We start to see hundreds of stars scattered across the sky, with a bright yellow moon illuminating the start of our journey. 

It will take four hours to reach the summit for sunrise. Then another four hours to return. It is now 2am, and we have not slept since the night before. Ready, go!

The first stage of the climb was through a forest. Following the footsteps and flickering lights ahead of us, we slowly navigated our way up the tree-root steps and slippery mud path. Our guides walk with ease. They do not struggle with balance, nor even use their hands for stability as we do. 

After the first half hour, we are rewarded with a five minute break. The stars seem brighter. The galaxy is now in view. Some of us catch a glimpse of a shooting star or two. A sea of bright cities and street lights reflect below. 

We continue to ascend through the trees to a more rocky terrain. We are now grabbing the sharp edges of age-old volcanic rock, hugging our bodies to the near-vertical incline. Flashlights do little to help, as the environment seems to get darker and darker.

We continue to take breaks every hour or two. Snacks and tea keep us from falling asleep, and from falling down the mountain. Our calves are burning and our inhales are now quicker. 

Above us is what distracts us. The white cloud of stars that makes up our galaxy. The Southern Cross, slightly to our right. A satellite streaks across the twinkling canvas. Smooth black clouds creeping towards the volcano.  

We reach the summit just minutes before sunrise. We sit together. A gaping crater at our backs, the perfect combination of blue and orange sky in our sights. A giant vertical cloud floats in the north. Sleeping cities and villages to the south. It is mostly silent, except for sound of shivering and tea-sipping. 

The sun slowly rises, bringing warmth and light to everything. We realize the magnitude of what we just climbed. The converging lines of the horizon, volcano, and forest below play tricks with our minds. The clouds are now below us, and climbing down is our only way home. 

Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur (KL) is easily my favorite place so far on this trip. It is an absolutely beautiful city, in what seems to be an equally beautiful country. Before arriving, my expectations were rather low. Our guide book wrote about hostels with cardboard boxes for walls, and other unsavory living conditions for travelers on a budget. Thankfully, everything was just the opposite.

KL is a city unlike any I have seen. The roads are smooth with dark black pavement and perfect yellow painted lines. Nature hugs the concrete infrastructure and futuristic skyscrapers. Trees reach out around bends in the road and greet you after each underpass. Only leaves litter these highways.

A three dollar ($) bus ticket brought us an hour’s drive into the Chinatown district, where we would end up staying two nights. From our fourth floor room: below, fresh fruit stands; above, perfect blue skies.

A major walking street criss-crosses through the heart of Chinatown. Several lanes of vendors hide the pavement, as eager salesmen work their creativity to sell sunglasses, sneakers, bags, and everything else.

Just beyond the majestic Masjid Jamek, with palm trees and minarets pointing to the sky, sits Little India. The taste of bhindi, smell of masala, and the sound of the azaan remind me of home.

Across the river and the train tracks is the National Masjid. I always think of masjids as very peaceful places. Places where hundreds, thousands, and even millions share the same concept of silence. This masjid of Malaysia does not contradict, especially with it’s perfect reflection in a pool of water along the perimeter.

A block or two from the masjid is the Islamic Arts Museum. A room full of scaled-down replicas of the world’s most beautiful masjids, leads to other rooms full of impossible calligraphy, elegant metalwork, and the priceless past.

At the end of a winding road, devoid of cars, is the Lake Gardens. A quiet slice of nature in case you are not convinced of KL’s love of green. Only the sounds of water fountains and the rustle of leaves above can be heard from the benches along a running path.

A metro ride away is the famous Petronas Towers. The former tallest towers in the world. At night, from any district in the city, these twin giants can be easily spotted against the blue or black sky.

I believe that Kuala Lumpur is, so far, Southeast Asia’s best kept secret. Malaysia, a majority Muslim country, should be recognized for its progress and the negative stereotypes that don’t exist. It is a city that should be admired for everything that it has. Fantastic people, environment, art, food, culture, architecture, and so much more. I do plan on returning to Malaysia sometime in the future, and next time hopefully I will have more time and the chance to explore the forests outside of KL.

Siem Reap and the Angkor temples

Country number three was a full day of traveling away. We started our morning with a ferry to Ban Nakasan to board a bus to the Laos-Cambodian border and then on to Siem Reap. Which turned out to be a 15 hour journey when all was said and done. 

Usually sleeping is the best way to pass the time on these long bus rides, but the conditions of the roads did not make it easy. Similar to Laos, the roads were wrecked. Small strips of pavement led to cracks and gaping potholes filled with mud and rainwater. The rainfall increased as we passed overturned trucks along the way. We smelled burning rubber from spinning tires, as smaller buses and minivans struggled to escape the mud. Knowing that a simple mistake could land us in similar situations, our slow drive through the slippery passageways had everyone literally on the edges of their seats. One time the bus shook so violently that it seemed inevitable that we would be tallied up as another overturned vehicle. 

By 11pm we finally reached Siem Reap and found a guesthouse that was recommended to us by some friendly Canadians back in November. Our new home was nice. No cockroaches and two fans. Southeast Asian luxury at its finest. 

We slept in our first morning in Siem Reap. There was no rush to go anywhere and nothing was planned. We slowly left our guesthouse around noon and found some food. It was disappointing, to say the least. In fact, most of the food we found in Cambodia lacked something or other. It didn’t have the kick of Thai food, the scents of Vietnamese, nor the made-with-love simplicity of laos. 

Siem Reap exists because of Angkor Wat and the Angkor temples. The history and beauty of the ancient world is what attracts millions of people every year. Unfortunately, Siem Reap has turned into a giant tourist trap. While it is rather quiet and peaceful in certain areas, the main roads are a constant source of annoyance. Tuk-tuk drivers pick at your nerves, one by one, while they offer you their services. Vendors from store fronts and push carts chirp into your ears about this postcard and that scarf. 

It is obvious that Cambodia’s tourism economy, or economy as a whole, is based almost entirely around the attraction that has become Angkor. Deemed the “8th Wonder of the World,” Angkor Wat sits north of Siem Reap, along with several temple sites scattered about. Tuk-tuk drivers bring you from one to another along roads full of more tuk-tuks, rental cars, and tour buses.

I heard many positive reviews about Angkor Wat before arriving. I heard about the majestic structure that reflected in water that surrounded it. The idea of temples made me think about my trips to Thailand, where we walked around Ayutthaya in utter silence, at our own pace, even with plenty of tourists among us. 

This was different. This was chaos. This was tours and talking. This was hot and rushed. This was postcard vendors holding images of places that didn’t resemble what we had just seen. This was the Taj Mahal of Cambodia. It was a place that was run over by tourists and where the locals strove to benefit from the constant flow of travelers, day in and day out. I honestly walked through Angkor Wat and back around without knowing that it was what it was. I thought there was something “missing.” 

Anyway, we continued our journey from stop to stop, and fortunately that made things better. The other temples were much more interesting, in my opinion. Trees and nature encroached on the ruins of the crumbled stone walls. Faces hidden on towering structures. The soothing smell of incense carried through the damp, dark hallways that many tourists luckily neglected to visit. 

Our last day was more relaxing. Sarah went for an early morning yoga class, while I slept in. Then we found our way to a rooftop pool, within walking distance of our guesthouse. We then grabbed some lunch and hit happy  hour, before a return to the pool. Dinner was back on the main street near the Old Market. Dinner’s verdict: unappetizing. 

I wish I had more time in Cambodia to visit the countryside or maybe even Phnom Penh. Maybe I just was really unlucky with the food and atmosphere around Siem Reap and Angkor. Oh well, off to Malaysia!

laos

Driving through Laos to Savannakhet you see life. True life. You see people build their lives, homes, and country by hand. Brick by brick. Skeletons of unfinished and abandoned homes lay scattered. Fathers rest in the hammocks hanging on the porches of their stilted homes. The roads are shattered. Little children play with their imaginations. Smiling wives sit on picnic benches hidden from the sun. Young men gather for some pickup on cracked volleyball courts. Segments of paved roads follow rocks and  dirt. Tractor engines connected to two long handlebars pull wagons full of giggling girls. Goats wonder freely and swim in the ponds of rain water. Out-of-place billboards advertise cellphone services for bus loads of travelers that barge through each day. Rusted satellite dishes of all sizes litter roofs and front lawns. (That was a free-writing exercise on the bus ride)

We reached Savannakhet in the early evening, with enough time to settle down and explore the city for some food. Savannakhet is a sleepy town. It is quite, clean, and full of remnants of the French colonial rule. There is an old church square in the middle of town, with run-down buildings sitting opposite of restaurants geared towards the few tourists that pass through. A few blocks from the church square is the great Mekong River, which runs through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam before emptying out in the South China Sea. 

The following day in Laos’ second biggest “city,” we visited a dinosaur museum, got a massage, and  ate some lunch before jumping back on a bus headed south to the city of Pakse. The dinosaur museum was literally two small rooms full of unidentifiable bones and material only written in French and Laos. Oh, and a dinosaur made of Christmas lights that wrapped around the first room. 

Pakse also sat along the Mekong River, and it was also a very lazy town. There was nothing really to do in the town, except enjoy a nice cafe breakfast and walk along the river. While walking, we found a tourism office, full of very friendly Laotian ladies. Sarah joked with them about grabbing a beer together for lunch, which then turned out to be a lunch date by the river. 

Six of the employees closed the office and brought us to a small restaurant where we had our first real taste of Laotian food. The waitresses brought over three clay pots full of boiling broth. We then dropped some vegetables, uncooked meat, and noodles and waited several minutes for it all to cook. We each had our own personal bowls of peanut sauce, which made the lunch even more fantastic. 

Our new friends told us how we were the first tourists that they took out to lunch. My beer lao turned into several glasses of beer lao as it was constantly being refilled. After lunch we returned to grab our stuff from their office, and then made our way to the bus station to head south yet again. 

Our next stop was Si Phan Don, which translates to “4,000 Islands.” There are three main islands were tourists can stay called Don Khong, Don Det, and Don Khon. Most of the four thousand islands are simply small shrubs that pop out of the water. 

During our two days on Don Khon, we rented bicycles, swam in a natural swimming pool, floated down the river on tubes, and tried to hide from the massive cockroaches that infested our room. Aside from the cockroaches, the islands were very relaxing. We found ourselves riding our bicycles through small villages hidden in the jungles of the islands, with little girls and boys waving and smiling at us as we went passed.

Laos is awesome, in my book. 

sapa

upon reaching the northwestern city of lao cai by overnight train, we were greeted to to the thick fog and greyscale vision that was instantly reminded us of our travels through halong bay. we were quickly ushered into a minivan that was filled to capacity, and we ascended to the mountain city of sapa. 

even with our visibility reduced to about ten or fifteen feet in each direction, we our driver fearlessly sped up the seemingly memorized winding mountain roads. while i dosed in and out of sleep, i caught glimpses of water buffalo and the sounds of motorbikes whizzing by as we continued to cruise around corner after corner. 

within an hour we were once again in another hotel lobby, handing over our passports to the receptionists, and told to eat breakfast. our first day was advertised as a trek to the cat cat village. it was so bad, that i don’t really want to even write about it. all i will say is that it was a short “trek” down a paved road to a tourist trap of souvenir shops. poorly advertised. 

just like the groups of water buffalo that cross over the roads, we were herded back to the hotel to eat, yet again. aside from dinner a few hours later, there were no other scheduled plans for the “tour” we had signed up for.

the beautiful weather of day two instantly lifted our spirits. the sun was out, there was not a trace of fog, and there was a slight breeze that kept us from melting. the tour operators assured us that this day would be more of a real trek, compared to the first day. We reluctantly agreed, since we had already paid and only had one more day on the mountain. 

before the trek began, we were waiting outside the hotel. the neighboring plot of land was a construction site. there was a concrete skeleton of a hotel with unfinished exterior walls on each floor clinging to the mountainside. i kept thinking to myself how amazing the views might be from the wall-less top floors of the building that faced out across the valley.

i thought about how my dad would simply walk in and explore on his own. i mean, i have seen him do it so many times. my dad’s curiosity has usually led us to places most people never see. after i explain this to sarah, we walked over to ask the construction workers for permission to enter. 

the workers agreed without a second guess for our safety or exactly who we were. we crossed the small wooden bridge to the unfinished lobby floor. the workers smiled and encouraged us to continue up the precarious wooden ladders that led from floor to floor.

we were greeted in a language we don’t know, and were immediately offered tea. while we squatted and sipped the very bitter yellow tea another worker handed me a bamboo bong filled with tobacco.he asked us to smoke a little each, as the other poured us another cup of the yellow-colored tea. we tried to communicate in a mix of vietnamese, english, and thai, but our efforts seemed fruitless. either way, it was a very great way to start the day. 

this trek was to the ta van village down the mountain from sapa. along with another giant herd of tourists, we walked through the city and along another paved road. however, as the city disappeared, so did the paved roads. we found ourselves sliding our way down muddy hills, and carefully navigating rocky bends. 

this trek was all about the views. steps of rice paddies and small homes nestled in the mountain side. a small river ran between the mountains and through the villages, which we eventually entered. 

after the day’s trek ended, we rode a bus back to our hotel. we had some free time to eat an early dinner and then explore the city. we went a small bookstore and then to the small produce market where we bought some oranges for the construction workers. 

before our trip back to the train station in lao cai, we hung out with the construction workers one more time. they offered us more tea and tobacco, as we photographed the work and the construction site as a whole. (more photos to come)

if anything, sapa reaffirmed our negative opinions regarding organized tours in southeast asia, but it also reminded us to follow through with our gut feelings when we have them. the construction workers made us remember that, aside from all the tourist traps and silliness that comes along with traveling in very popular destinations, there are still some amazing things that most tourists miss. our time with the workers is not something you will read in lonely planet guide books, and is something that i will probably always remember about vietnamese people and my trip to vietnam.

halong bay

hanoi acts as a connection point for tourists interested in halong bay on the east coast, and sapa in the northwest. ever since i had seen top gear’s excursion to vietnam a few years ago, i had always wanted to see halong bay and the thousands of limestone islands that dot the horizon. 

the easiest and most common way of experiencing the bay is by an organized boat tour. our bus left hanoi early in the morning to reach the port of halong city. around ten other travelers joined us on the boat, which included our own cabin for the night and cooked meals. 

a fleet of hundreds of boats departed from the bay and followed similar routes to the popular destinations in the bay. it was not necessarily what i had envisioned for so many years. the cold weather was accompanied by thick fog and a greyscale view out to the islands. 

without having control over our route, we huddle inside our cabins as we waited to see where we were brought to next. an unflattering cave and a short kayak trip around a little cove eventually led to dinner on the boat, as we sat anchored in the still water. 

by the time we were ready to sleep, the crew turned on the heat in our little cabins, so we slept like babies before waking up at 6:30am the next morning. we had to switch boats, in order to head over to cat ba island where we would spend the second night. 

a minivan awaited our arrival on the jungle-covered island. seven of us piled in the back and we set off towards our hotel on the other side of the island. the van winded along the coastal road, which overlooked the rocky shore and the valley landscape of the island. 

before reaching out hotel, we entered the cat ba national park were we chose to trek up one of the many limestone mountains that formed the island. along with a vietnamese guide, we made our way up the very muddy trail towards the top. without the proper shoes, i am surprised i did not fall, however there were definitely some close calls. 

the trek ended with a slow climb up a rusted-metal lookout tower. only five people were allowed at a time, as the tower felt like it would crumble at any given moment. the trek back down the muddy slopes proved to be more difficult, so we took our time before returning to the minivan and back en route to our hotel. 

our hotel was in a ghost town. this is mostly because we were there during the off-season, which makes sense, since it is so cold and the bay is not nearly as beautiful as it is in the summer. the downtown area was quiet. a few young adults played street soccer, while other locals tried to sell us pearl necklaces and seashells. 

before the day ended, we took a quick boat ride to monkey island. we passed by a floating fishing village, made up of little green houses sitting on little docks along the cascading walls of the islands. there was even an empty schoolhouse that floated among the community, as it was vacation time for the students.

we landed on monkey island’s seashell beach, and found ourselves climbing once more up to the top of a mountain. this climb was shorter, but full of sharp, eroded rocks. the gray spiked pierced through my worn out shoes, but the climb was still worth it, even if the weather was no as ideal as we hoped. 

hanoi

vietnam was all about the weather. the frigid air caught us by surprise as we stepped out from the hanoi airport. we had not prepared ourselves for cold weather, since thailand had spoiled us with daily heat for the past five months.

the chaos of traffic was on another level compared to thailand. more motorbikes covered the asphalt, with fearless drivers zigzagging in all directions, no matter which way the majority of traffic was heading. driving one-handed was a common sight, as drivers kept their left hands warm inside jacket pockets. 

our hotel was among numerous other hotels that lined the busy streets. compared to thailand, more people seemed to be out and about. plastic stools almost equalled the hundreds of motorbikes that parked along the sidewalks. locals sipped on lemon tea from their stools, as they enjoyed watching the sea of traffic and western tourists flow by. 

the neighborhood catered to tourists, with restaurants and souvenir shops visible around every corner. a few blocks from our hotel was the hoan kiem lake whose shorelines lit with rainbow lights by nighttime, along with the perfectly red huc bridge extending out to an island in the middle.

southeast asia and then some

vietnam. on march 10th we, sarah and i, will fly into hanoi. from there we will hopefully see ha long bay, and make our way south, towards the city of hue. laos. we will then cross the border into laos and possibly explore several dinosaur sites in savannakhet. laos is our least planned destination. cambodia. eventually around we will jump down into cambodia inch our way to siem reap to see the ancient temples on angkor. malaysia. on march 27th we will then fly southwest to kuala lumpur. for four days we will navigate our way through a city that i know almost nothing about. singapore. our next destination is only an hour’s flight away. the cheap ticket will probably be the only cheap thing we find, as i have heard of shopping, shopping, and shopping in singapore. indonesia. paradise is what i am hoping comes next, during the first week of april. bali is known for its perfect beaches, but we are also arriving in a very popular time of the year. we will have a week to find that hidden patch of peace where we can dig our toes into the sand. nepal. after our return flight to singapore and bangkok, we arrive in delhi to connect to our flight to kathmandu. i have heard plenty of positivity about nepal, so i am sure the chaotic flight plans are worth it. plus, kathmandu just sounds like a place i never thought i would go to… kind of like bangkok. india. our eighth and final country is also home. udaipur is where my family is from, and i simply cannot wait to get back. we will make some touristy stops as we travel by train from delhi to my grandmother’s house only a few minutes from fateh sagar. finish. then we head back to thailand. sarah heads back to the u.s., and i go back to chonburi.