Thursday, September 25, 2008

elephants at the wat

I went to Angkor sometime last week. It was rainy to start, but the weather got with the program and kept things cool, but dry. Later in the afternoon the cloud cover broke up enough to afford me some nice looking light.I have been a bit apprehensive about writing about Angkor. I feel like it was one of those things I heard so much about, how impressive it is, how inspiring and amazing. But this is the thing, they had elephants. Ok so I know that is weird comment, elepants, but you have to keep in mind I hang out in Mundo Maya, there were no elephants there, no horses, no llamas, no beasts of burden to speak of, no wheels. Now I am not trying to compare Maya pyramids to Khmer temples, I just feel that the elephants explain why I feel a bit less bowled over by Angkor. They had elephants to carry those big rocks while the Maya carried them on their backs. But yes, they are beautiful and impressive works of ancient architecture, elephants or no.

The first day I took a tour with some friend's of Michael. We did the whole guide thing, with a tuk-tuk, complete with lunch at the expensive tourist restaurant. I dig on having a guide, as long as you can get a good one, they point out interesting things, give cultural context, and for me make big piles of rocks make a bit more sense. Another part of the guide thing is that they won't get you lost. My second day at Angkor I went back to do some sketching and painting, entonces I didn't have a guide. Though I had been there the day before I still managed to get lost over and over again. Obviously getting lost means getting to discover things on your own, it also means that you can miss some things entirely.

It was really nice to sit and watch the world pass by, and to slow down viewing the faces of Bayon to the speed of my pencil. Plus, being the sketching Barang you become a bit of a tourist attraction yourself.

Images (from top to bottom)
Elephants on the road towards bayon. The exterior of Bayon as seen from the north. Takeo's eastern side. Flags within the temple on the top of Takeo. Alter in one of the entrances of Angkor Wat.

Monday, September 22, 2008

on the road in kampuchea

We're back in Siem Reap after a couple of bone jarring, gut wrenching days of travel. On the way up we found ourselves mired down in deep mud twice. The first time just outside a small village about two hours north of Siem Reap. M and I spent the 45 minute pause chatting with the locals, including the two in the photo. The second mud caused delay came just after the turn off from the main highway about 3k from the guest house we were headed towards. After a couple minutes of watching the wheels spin we abandoned the driver and our guide, opting instead to walk the kilometers on the muddy road towards the promise of a shower.
We had made the journey to check out the eco-lodge in Tmatboey of the NGO M has been volunteering for and to pick up another PCV who had been teaching English to the local guides. It was actually a very very cool place in the middle of no where. Though I would not suggest it to just anybody (I woke up the next day sore from the ride) but if you like birds and really getting off the beaten track it was a pretty epic adventure. We got mistakenly taken on a bird watching trip to see the endangered white shouldered ibis, which ended up being much more cool than I might have thought. You can check the place out, Sam Veasna Center.
Over night the rain fell fast and hard and we knew the next day the roads would probably be in a worse state. They were. An ankle deep creek from the day before had swelled to almost cover the doors of our Nissan truck. The driver ended up with water in his foot bed after we managed to cross the damn thing. Add to this, four of us were crammed across the back seat of the four door cab. Uncomfortable as it was, being jammed in was a bit better than the jostling around the two of us had suffered through the day prior. Luckily on the ride down the only thing that brought the car to a complete stop were the herds of cows that created grid lock on the one lane dirt road and we made it back to Siem Reap in time for a late lunch.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

solving those mysterious mysteries

One of my favorite parts of travel is interacting with different cultures and coming to know some of their subtleties. But some of those things feel unsolvable, or inappropriate to ask about, and then they become mysteries. One such thing was the inexplicably long nail that many Asian men sport. I never knew really how to broach the subject, I heard all sorts of bizarre rumors about its meaning and felt awkward in bringing it up. That is where having a cultural expert as one of your best friends comes in handy. Michael's 18 month tenure in Cambodia means that she is well versed is almost everything Khmer. Meaning she knew the answer to the mystery of the pinky nail.
So here comes the answer... ready??? you sure? No, it does not signify anything perverse or strange, but is actually a way of showing you aren't a manual laborer. This points out an interesting value in Khmer society, that people want to display the fact that they do not work with their hands. I find this fascinating because it plays into the larger story of how our bodies themselves can be read as cultural texts, many of our culture's values are conveyed through the way we care for and decorate our bodies.
Now if I could only figure out why they prefer pink toilet paper in Central America....

sophisticated lady

The story that follows is being shared in the tradition of turning my embarrassing foibles into entertainment (poorly written entertainment maybe). If you have a weak stomach, or just don't like hearing about as we put it in spanish, vomitando, don't read on. Otherwise...

Though the road from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh is quite smooth, any bus ride can be destructive after enough vodka. The night before had started innocently enough, but somewhere between $1 drinks and the desire to dance things got a bit carried away. Never the less M and I were highly motivated to get ourselves to PP, and upon awaking at 8:30 we somehow felt that taking the 9:30 bus was a better option than waiting for the 12:30. I admire our enthusiasm, really I do, no matter that we missed the 9:30 and instead found ourselves booked for the 10:30. Finding ourselves with a bit of extra time we spent half an hour bumbling around procuring water, noodles, and bread for the bus ride, promptly throwing ourselves on to what we though was the bus at 10. Of course, this being Cambodia we weren't on the bus, we were on the shuttle to the bus, which meant changing buses in the rainy muddy mess that is the Siem Reap bus stop. Safely on board I had a stunningly terrible realization, I was hungover, and not in that, “Oh, my head hurts.,” sense. No, no, more in that, “Holy shit, I might die, but before that happens I am definitely going to toss my cookies,” sense. As much as I tried to talk myself out of it, had a distinct feeling that vomiting at 60kph was in my near future.

Luckily I have experience with this type of thing, there was an incident some years back where I emptied my stomach into a pint glass to a chorus of shouts from my mom while sitting shotgun in one of my family's cars. Additionally I spent most of my childhood suffering from motion sickness (severe enough that I had never driven down Highway 1 until I was in my twenties). So when it comes to throwing up I can give you a 30 second window before it is going to actually happen. Which means that I had enough time to hide beneath my scarf, procure the plastic bag that contained the remnants of my coconut bread and vomit straight into it, all the while Michael took photos of the proceedings, after which a very adorable Khmer couple across the aisle took pity on me and passed motion sickness pills across. I thought it would be smooth sailing after all that, passed out for a while, only to be awoken by the panic of needing another plastic bag. At this point I had the previously filled bag precariously stuck inside a larger plastic bag, in my panic I somewhat missed the bag and managed to coat the back of the seat, Michael's calf, and a portion of the floor with regurgitated water before aiming the rest of the mess into the bag. Now we had to petition the couple across the aisle for another bag to bag the now leaking other bags in. Luckily it was only about ten minutes to the first rest stop where I was revived by a bowl of noodle soup and green tea. This meal is conveniently a fantastic cure to hangovers, restoring precious salts and fluids in one easy to digest bowl. Meaning that by the time we got back on the bus I was feeling rough, but generally okay to suffer through the next 5 hours of bus ride.

And no, I will not be sharing the photos, I draw the line there.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

toul sleng

I think that one of the toughest parts of travel is confronting the darker parts of a country. There is an impulse in travel to idealize, to skim off all the good parts, and not look at reality. The problem I find with that approach is that it ends up feeling empty, sanitized, and false. Though seeing poverty up close, people with diseases, people missing limbs, children begging for food, is not what we go on vacation for, it is also part of the places many of us choose to travel. How we interact and understand the people from the country in which we travel to says a lot about us as people and the places we come from.
Cambodia takes it beyond just dealing with our reactions to poverty, Cambodia asks us also to face a brutal history, a history many of us know little about.
I am not an expert in Khmer history, but through my previous travels in SE Asia I knew a bit about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rogue. But until my trip to the Tuol Sleng genocide musuem the atrocities that occurred in Cambodia during 1975 until 1979 felt like most history, distant, relegated to dusty gray photos, and having little to do with my present. Tuol Sleng is like a slap in the face, the history jumps out at you, dragging you through the interrogation rooms, sucking you into the eyes of the prisoners, and leaving you at the end reeling and wondering at it all.
Though the trip to the museum was not what I would call pleasant, it was the most worthwhile thing I have done since I have been here. It gives this country and these people context, something that makes me feel like I have actually experienced Cambodia rather than just, "doing" it.

one of the interrogation rooms, where prisoners were tortured

one of the larger interrogation rooms, numbers were painted on the wall marking spaces for individuals

the exterior of building "C" where the majority of the prisoners were kept in individual cells of brick or wood

brick cells constructed in the interior of building "C"

photos of some of the prisoners in building "B"

Monday, September 15, 2008

tot umbee kampuchea

view from the tuk-tuk leaving russian market

central market

outside the national palace

the girls of phnom penh

mikee with tea post pedicure

peace out lonely planet

I feel that the guide book might be evolving. At least I really hope it might be. Two recent indicators of this are Urban Lowdown and Sean Bonner's Metblogs. I learned about Metblogs through a feature in Good. These are both new discoveries, and I am not telling you that they are any good, though they might be, I'll have to explore them a bit more before I develop and opnion on either of them. What I like about them, or the idea of them is that maybe, possibly, those damn writers at the Lonely Planet will no longer dominate the world of backpacker style traveling. And man, do those writers make me crazy. More than them, it is the travelers that won't make a decision with out the LP's approval. I mean I get it, you want to have the inside track to a place, but often times a LP writer may only spend 10 minutes asking questions about a place, and never stayed there or eaten there. The implied advantage of these sites is that local people write them, they really know these places, and they don't have to write a whole book about a whole country in 5 days. So that is my spiel on guidebooking, that is until I get my shit together and write my graphical guide to central america. Oh, one last resource for you facebook addicted or avoiding travelers is Matador a social networking site for travelers. Do it up.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

i heart PP

Phnom Penh is like an ex-pat, do-gooder, NGO flavored, 'let's help these people,' explosion. Wow. Combine that with the remnants of French colonialism and you get kick ass pan au chocolate made by a street kid, who has been newly trained in the secrets of french gastronomy. After breakfast you can head out and buy yourself a wallet made out of brightly colored recycled mosquito netting. End the day having a drink at the FCC with the other ex-pats wearing their, "I voted for Obama in Cambodia" t-shirts which retail for a staggering $15. For that price, as I said to Mikee, those t-shirts better be made in the USA by well paid union workers.
Sarcasm set aside, I really do heart P squared. It has all the makings for a refreshing stint back in the city, wifi, cappuccinos, thai food, americans, western supermarkets, and rock bottom priced dvds. Michael and I headed back to P2 after two nights in Siem Reap. She had some official Peace Corps scavenger hunt planning to do, and I had to be there as moral support, or something like that. Mostly I ended up enjoying the gastronomic offerings of a ex-pat developed city and tried to not get in the way of official PCV business.
Inspired by all the delightful discoveries that Meesh shared with me, I thought I would pass along the tips. First off we stayed in Golden Gate Guest House on 278, along the same street are a number of delightful discoveries, the boom boom room where you can get your ipod loaded with the latest tunes, top banana (Mikee's favorite guest house), and a delicious Thai place (the name escapes me). Another feature of 278 is Maharaja, where all the PCV like to indulge in the gut bomb of Indian breakfast. Right around the corner is, semi-famous Garden Cafe in it's second incarnation, Garden Cafe 2. Besides GC2, is a very very cool recycled product boutique, Smateria. Their products are made from plastic bags, old mosquito nets, and tetra-pack. It was started by two Italianos, and now is a cute little place filled with friendly Khmer, happy to let you snoop around and decide if a wallet will fit your passport and five currencies.
If you are feeling like a traveler with especially full pockets, or just feeling the need to have a shwanky afternoon head over to the devastatingly cute and gastronomic blocks of 240. There you can stock up on killer baguettes and french cheese at VeGGy's, wander down the street for croissant and dragon fruit smoothies at the shop, where all the IT people feed, and buy chocolate for your Khmer sweet heart at Chocolate (the shop's chocolatiere off-shoot). The Shop is that kind of place that makes you feel cooler and more with it than normally your hairy legs and dirty sandaled feet would allow. My first time in there 3 french business men were 'doing ' breakfast in pale suits and crisp blue shirts, meaning I stuck out like a sore thumb, but they do a mean cappuccino, so who cares?
Another ex-pat hot spot is Java, which besides serving Illy coffee, also displays local art and organizes cool events, like Architecture and Urban Design month. Finally another cool food meets art place is Friends they have a little boutique and a restaurant near the National Musuem. I fell in love with their cookbook, From Spiders to Water Lilies. The restaurant is a sort of Jamie Oliver deal, teaching kids about the biz and arming them with a set of marketable skills.
Most of the things that the sell in the little shop are recycled items, in the same vein as Smateria. It has been very inspiring to witness so much positive grass roots community stuff that Phnom Penh has to offer. Almost every cafe you go into talks about how it uses local produce, fair trade coffee or helps disadvantaged youth. The cynic in me wonders how many of them are doing as well as their mission statements, carefully constructed in english, might imply, but the optimist in me hopes that it is an indication of the direction the world might be headed, that finally we might be learning from our mistakes.

Friday, September 12, 2008


My arrival in Phnom Penh was the stuff of noir novels or movies in which everybody smokes. I always find late night arrivals strange and disorienting. I would probably be a bit more successful with the whole thing if I were a bit more tortured and poetic. Ah well, I am just not a late night artiste (say it in a over done bad french accent). Instead I drag myself to the immigration desk to procure a visa, chose the slowest immigration officer to stare at my passport, arrive at the luggage carousel as two employees are about to take it off to god-knows-where, wander through customs and find myself in the steamy Khmer night air.
There waited for me a taxi driver with a sign with my name on it. I had a moment before I left where I decided any attempts to be a hardcore traveler after 24 hours of travel was a bit beyond my interest and booked an airport transfer. So there was no time to stand and smoke a hand rolled cigarette while inhaling the heavy tropical air. I just gave the man my bag and settled myself in the back of the cab. Though it was past eleven some of the tuk-tuks still roamed the street, people were still cooking in brightly lit street-side food stalls, and the city had not yet succumbed to that eerie late night slumber distinct to cities.
I arrived at my hotel, climbed the stairs and fell on to the bed. By then the hour had past 12, finding me minus a monday, but able, via the hotel's wireless, to talk to my parents. What a blessing and a curse technology is. We can never fully disconnect, and yet we can find a way to connect with the people we love over distances that 30 years ago were prohibitively expensive to surmount.
Tuesday morning I grabbed a tuk-tuk to the bus station where I boarded a two story deluxe bus to Siem Reap. I fell victim immediately to an introduction to Khmer karaoke videos, which though featuring water wheels and crying Khmer girls sitting in the brown river waters, don't compare musically or visually to their Thai counterparts featuring flashy motos. I combated the musical assault with a combination of my ipod and a book.
That being said I did spend a bit of time staring out the window as Cambodia slipped by the windows. It is the rainy season here, so much of the very very flat land is either flooded by mud brown water or covered by the soft young green of rice paddies. The landscape gains height from the straight trunks of palms that stud the landscape. The sky was a tumultuous mix of grays, purples, and blues, fighting with the sun for dominance over the scene.
Midway through the ride we made a stop at a typical roadside place, as I got off the bus I found myself in a swarm of pineapple toting kids all trying to win my 2000 riel in exchange for their fruit. The women carried baskets of fried tarantulas and decapitated fried frogs. One of the little girls showed up with a live counterpart, a huge fuzzy spider clinging to the front of her well-worn dress. They all giggled and explained that the frogs were frogs, tried to stick the spider on me, and wanted to practice their English. Amongst that pack of kids, frogs, and spiders, I found myself strangely not suffering from culture shock, rather than reeling from difference, I almost felt more at home on this Cambodian roadside than I had arriving back in the states.
I've been missing the chaos, the rhythm, the mud, the life of being on the road. It was nice to be back in a bus with my only responsibility being keeping myself entertained. After staring at all the fruit, pineapple, tamarind, rambutan, durian, I got myself back on the bus and settled in to my green pleather seat, with its lace head cover, and fell asleep for a good hour.
Upon waking I started thinking about the upcoming reunion I was headed towards. My primary purpose in visiting Cambodia had been to go see one of my best friends, Michael, who has been here for the past 18 months with the Peace Corps. The last time I saw her was on Valencia street in San Francisco. Our paths crossed for a brief laughter filled five minutes before I hopped in a car on my way to SFO where I was to catch a flight to Singapore. Michael on the other hand had just arrived in San Francisco for here Peace Corps training. Fast forward to last tuesday, I pull up in a tuk-tuk outside Siem Reap's Blue Pumpkin to a leggy blonde sitting outside reading Al Gore's book on climate change. I had escaped the muddy bus station, hopped into a tuk-tuk and now was but 2 meters from Mikee. Needless to say there was a lot of laughter, hugging, and stories to be shared, which is what the last week has mostly been filled with.

Monday, September 8, 2008

thank you please...

I've just arrived in Seoul, Korea, passed through ridiculously slow security to a chant of, "Thank you, please," repeated in sing song by the Korean security girls dressed in khaki polyester uniforms. Now I am in the windowed terminal watching the sun creep towards the western horizon. My only real glimpse of Korea was a smattering of islands silhouetted on the rippled silver of the sea not far from the airport.
It is about eleven hours from SFO to Seoul, I kept myself entertained with my new favorite magazine, GOOD, and a book that came highly recommended, Three Cups of Tea. Of course, both have left me feeling equally optimistic and depressed about where the world is headed. A topic to which I feel many words could be dedicated.
Good talks about the poor state of the Public School in the US, while Three... documents the efforts of an American mountaineer to build schools in Pakistan. Education, and I am not talking calculus and chemistry type stuff, but the basics, reading, writing, 'rithmetic, is something that, at least in my opinion, everyone should have access too. Yet in our attempts to help educate the world I often wonder with our western ideals and ideas what impact we end up leaving.
I consider this stuff a lot. In my job we like to proselytize how low impact and sustainable our way of traveling is. Many travelers love to be arrogant about how they are giving back, how they stay off the tourist trail, and how they live like locals. But at the end of it, we go home, or go somewhere else, and I wonder what is left in our wake besides empty water bottles.
In another fantastic book, Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts, the author talks about his impact on the l0cal people he develops relationships with. As I have spent more and more time in Central America I often find myself torn. I don't want to perpetuate ideas of American wealth and prosperity, I want to be generous with friends, but not feel like I am buying them or that they are exploiting me. I end up feeling my hands are tied. And the more I read the more unsure I feel. A bright light in all this thinking were two quotes that I felt at least made a lot of sense to my thinking, they follow....

It may seem absurd to believe that a "primitive" culture in the Himalaya has anything to teach our industrialized society. But our search for a future that works keeps spiraling back to an ancient connection between ourselves and the earth, and interconnectedness that ancient cultures have never abandoned.
-Helena Norberg-Hodge

"Tell us, if there were one thing we could do for your village, what would it be?"
"With all respect, Sahib, you have little to teach us in strength and toughness. And we don't envy your restless spirits. Perhaps we are happier than you? But we would like our children to go to school. Of all the things you have, learning is the one we most desire for our children."
-Conversation between Sir Edmund Hillary and Urkien Sherpa, from Schoolhouse in the Clouds

I'm not sure any of this makes much sense, but it is a glimpse of what is swirling around in my noggin as I am on my way to see Miss Kohan out there in Cambodia. Than you, please.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

te extraño

Nestor next to his newly repainted van which is still missing its bumper.
Isla Ompetepe, Nicaragua

Long exposure on the beach. Isla Ometepe, Nicaragua.

Summit of the "Extreme Hike." La Fortuna, Costa Rica.

Early morning on Ometepe. Isla Ometepe, Nicaragua.

Friday, September 5, 2008

what to pack...

My friend Alaina is getting ready to head off on an adventure starting in Guatemala and has been asking me for advice on packing. Of course being the opinionated girl that I am I have a lot of ideas about packing.
The thing that I think is the most important is your pack. I am a bit of a brand monogamist when it comes to packs, osprey being my favorite. I've been traveling with my pack, Maz, a waypoint 60 for the last couple months. Though the design of the day pack is a bit funny, she is pretty much bomb proof and some how manages to fit a mask, snorkel, 7 scarves, my 5000 guatemalan bags and pouches, a kilo of chiapan chocolate, t-shirts, chaco sandals, chaco flips, running shoes and a pair of nicaraguan sandals, you know, all the essentials.
I have a habit of naming all my packs, Maz, short for Mary, was named after another bag toting babe, Mary Poppins. Many of my passengers have commented on my ability to fit a lot into my packs, not unlike Mary's carpet bag.
An important feature in a travel pack for people like myself is a front zip, rather than a top loading pack. I have a tendency to let my stuff explode all over my hotel rooms, something that has been reduced by the appearance of Mary on the scene. Front loading packs mean you have much easier access to all your stuff, which means you never have that, "Fuck, I packed my tooth brush on the bottom of my pack AGAIN," moment.
Another part of choosing a pack is size. I rock between 50 to 60 liters. I personally don't think you need more space than that unless you are planning on spending all your time in the backcountry cooking for yourself. I always have dreams that I will downsize into a 30L, but with the job, and being on the road so long, I have a tendency to bring comfort items and collect a bit of a library.
Next major piece of advice... DO NOT pack a full size towel. When I see someone with a towel strapped to their pack the same things run through my head... mildew, dirt, waste of space, and who the hell told you to pack that? Do yourself a favor, pack yourself a travel towel (get a lite or ultra lite variety) or pack something even more versatile, a sarong/pareo. A sarong can be a towel, a blanket, a dress, and what you want out of the things you pack is that they are versatile. If you're not going to use something a lot then it is probably not worth packing. Things that often fall into this category: heavy hiking boots, pairs of underwear numbers 8-21, dresses only for salsa dancing, kilts, and curling irons.
Beyond that things that I can't leave with out...
playing cards, good for making friends, good for distracting yourself
my ipod, i am hopelessly addicted
my moleskine journal, for sketching, note taking, and writing
chaco flips, best best best flip flops in the world (the pair i have now are 4 years old)
Otherwise for the most part you can find everything you need on the road. If the locals aren't using it, you probably don't really need it. A good resource for packing is the travel independent website.