Tag Archives: culture

Trials & Tribulations of Travel

28 Jun

Color photo of a long boat on the Mekong River

As I write this I am at hour 7 of my second day traveling up the Mekong River by long-boat.  This mode of travel should be more appropriately titled SLOW boat.  I’ve estimated that we are moving at a pace of about 5-10 miles per hour.  Yesterday, with an overflowing boat, it took us over 10 hours to travel less than 100 miles.  All I can do is sigh and take a deep breadth… I am just so not used to this pace of life.  I’ve found myself totally conflicted by the rat race I run everyday at home in Washington, DC.  This really is the slowest I’ve moved in a days time in the past 6 years.  I guess if nothing else can get me to slow down and relax, well Laos certainly can.  And quite simply I don’t have a choice so I had better pull my head together and suck it up.  And in coming to terms with the fact that I have another 5 more hours to go in this long & slow boat better leave it with my favorite anecdote – in life there is a reason for everything.

Color photo of man rowing a dug out canoe

So why have I taken a 20+ hour slow boat journey up the Mekong River in the first place?  For one, I didn’t know this when I purchased the boat ticket two days ago but it really wouldn’t have had made a bit of difference if I had known, I would have had to travel this distance (and this slow) no matter what.  I suppose if I had known how long this would take I would have mentally prepared myself, brought water & food – and I certainly would have arrived at the boat launch well in advance so we didn’t have to [literally] push and shove to get seats on the boat.  It was so overloaded with people, motorcycles, sacs of rice, produce, bicycles, and everything in between that there weren’t enough seats on the boat for all the passengers.  Some of the long boats even carried goats, chickens, and ducks on the roof.  Though luckily we did manage to get seats, even if it meant sitting three people to 2 seats in hot and humid weather.  Let me tell you how fun this was! [sarcasm] And well actually I really didn’t have it as bad as some.  I had a seat next to a Dutch backpacker which lead to some good conversations that helped to pass the time.  But that wasn’t the only entertainment we had for the 10 hours.  The majority of the boat passengers were young (ages 20-30) Lao traveling from Luang Prabang to their homes in rural villages that are scattered along the edges of the Mekong River.  Most of them were quiet and reserved.  Some traveled as boyfriend-girlfriend couples.  While some groups of girls played card games and giggled for hours.

Then there was the back of the boat.  Now that is where all the “action” was – or however much “action” there can possibly be on a jam-packed wooden boat that is barely 9 feet wide.  But it did lead to the highlight of the day.  In the back of the boat there were a few young Laos (guys and gals) drinking the one and only BeerLao – for over 10 hours, laughing, eating sticky rice, and simply trying to have a good time.  Next thing I knew I turned my head to look at what the ruckus was and there in the back of the boat was one of my good friends (who I’ve been travelling with) hanging out with a glass of BeerLao and attempting to communicate with the half-drunken group in the back.  And well, this all lead to ongoing entertainment for the rest of the trip.  As the hours went by, they all continued to guzzle down BeerLao towards a drunken stupor.  I didn’t join them because I was on the verge of the infamous traveling “stomach bug” – if you know what I mean.  But every few hours we all had to “pay our dues” and visit the loo in the back of the boat.  Let me share with you a vision of the “loo” on the slow boat.  You push open a rickety wooden door and inside the door are a pair of old plastic sandals.  You leave your shoes outside the bathroom and slip on the wet nasty plastic sandals.  The floor inside is old & weathered ceramic with a small oddly star-shaped opening cut into the wooden side of the boat so you have some light.  A few pairs of old mens’ underwear and a womans’ bra is draped over a basket with used toilet paper.  Then there is the lovely Asian squat toilet. [sarcasm, again].  It’s a ceramic square with a hole in it – you peer down and you see the river water down below.  Now its time to test this interesting device.  You carefully squat, ensuring you keep your balance as the boat sways back and forth)and aim into the hole.  Meanwhile a concoction of river water and urine sloshes around your feet, and if you have bad aim your urine will join the rest of the sloshing mix.  A plastic grocery bag filled with traditional Lao herbs hangs on a rusty nail in the corner, attempting to curb the noxious aroma of urine and poo.  Be very careful not to lose your balance, or else you will fall either into the Asian toilet or the nasty liquid mess.  Another good reason to avoid drinking too much BeerLao on the boat.  Well I am pleased to report that by the end of this journey I did in fact “master” the Asian squat toilet.

The Asian Squat Toilet on the boat looked kind of like this, but this one is actually a bit nicer.

This boat trip has proven to be yet another test in patience.  Making me slow down and deal with all the discomforts that are required to travel & experience some of the most incredible and untouched places on Earth.  It’s a test in staying strong and remaining graceful amidst shear discomfort.  We passed through several rainstorms along the river.  And down come these heavy plastic curtains along all the sides of the boat – our long slow boat is now a makeshift sauna.  I can feel the sweat build-up on the backs of my legs that are pasted to the vinyl boat seat.  How [not] refreshing!  This is a test of grace for my mental strength.  DEEP BREATH.  But it wasn’t all bad – there was the occasional breeze from time to time that reminded us of how beautiful the Mekong is.   I look beyond it and admire the glorious Lao scenery.  And much to my delight I did spot one lone Elephant playing along a sandy shore.  Laos is “the land of a million elephants” and my singular elephant sighting was gratifying.

Color photo of the elephant I spotted

I’m now at cumulative 19 hours on this river journey.  My thoughts slip away from me.  I reflect on my life back at home, at what I will do when I return.  While some people count sheep I think about my happy puppy eager to take me on a long walk in our neighborhood.  I ponder some different tactics on a couple of projects at work, some new solutions come to mind and I jot them down.  And before I know it I am back in the present, living in the moment.  Though, I have to admit, this long-boat ride was also good for me to reflect on all these things.  It reminds me of how much I have to be grateful for in my life and how much I love & cherish my small family back home.  And remind us all that the experience of travel, as I define it, is not all the glitz and glory we often envision it to be.  And with that my mind goes back 10 years to my past adventures, far more challenging and uncomfortable, especially when I was “adventure travel fresh” and naive.  I remember the time when I was barely 20 years old and I decided to take a cargo boat (almost the size of a ship) for 27 hours non-stop across Lago de Nicaragua (Lake Nicaragua) to the mouth of Rio San Juan.  There were not even such things as seats on this boat – it was a true cargo ship.  Just a metal boat deck loaded with sacks of produce: melons, guavas, mangos, and breadfruit to call home for these 27 hours.  I rested my body across the bags of melons for what felt like eternity.  It rained heavily throughout the night and there was no roof on the boat deck.  I attempted to cover myself with the a thin layer of polyester from my travel hammock – and at some point I just accepted the fact that there I was and I was going to be wet.  The rain did provide a sense of relief from the oppressive daytime heat.  I can’t forget to mention that this entire time I had a bad stomach virus from drinking bad water several days prior, that progressively got worse during these 27 hours on the cargo ship.  [Most of you who have really traveled know what I mean by “stomach bug” – aka dysentery] Was there a bathroom on the boat equipped with so much as an Asian squat toilet?  Hardly!! Just a closet with a hole through the floor that went to the water.  The men on the boat just peed over the side, and I of course as a woman could not do that.  It was a trying 27 hours to say the least.  So worth it in the long run – Rio San Juan was beautiful, San Carlos, and El Castillo de la Concepcion were all incredible and mostly untouched places.  I feel so lucky having experienced these wonderous places before they get overrun with commerce and tourism.  And well, I am just so grateful that while on the Mekong River in Laos I am not sleeping in the rain on bags of melons and I don’t have a full-blown stomach bug.

Color photo of children playing on the Mekong

In this moment of new-found gratitude [and hopefully an ounce more of grace] for this long and SLOW journey I embrace the moment as I arrive at the Laos side of the border with Northern Thailand.

Color photo of the moon rising over the Mekong River near the Laos-Thai border

Deep into the Heart of the Mekong

23 Jun

Monks walking through the streets of Luang Prabang

Low hanging clouds drape themselves over brilliant green mountains that build up from the sandy shores of the Mekong River.  Large swaths of bamboo transcend into thick tropical rainforests.  Dried bamboo thatched roof huts built on stilts dot the shore line and in the foreground small herds of water buffalo graze on the grassy hills, completing this incredible landscape.  I find myself swept away by the beauty and peace deep in the heart of the Mekong River basin in Northern Laos.

This is probably one of the most laid back places in the world.  The days go by so slow and I’ve taken a step back in time.  I started my journey here in Luang Prabang, a little river town bursting with color and flavor.  It is also a modern-day spiritual center in the Buddhist world.  Several Wats with their golden temples and intricately painted pagodas blossom out of the bright green flora.  Hundreds of monks of all ages dressed in their saffron-colored robes meander the streets and their dwellings.  Before dawn, they walk throughout the community with large containers (called Almsbowls) reciting prayers as they visit each home, most are no more than small one room shelters made of wood and bamboo.  At each stop a fellow Lao places a spoonful of sticky rice in each Monk’s almsbowl.   This is the traditional Buddhist practice of giving alms and serves as a daily reminder for how important it is to give, no matter how much or how little you have.  There is so much that we, Americans and others of more wealthy backgrounds, have to learn from the simple art of giving – and trusting – that the people of Lao have so gracefully mastered.  Giving is certainly an intrinsic value from the Buddhist roots but it is further institutionalized in daily life through the current Communist political environment.

Landscape of the Mekong river at sunrise

The spirit of Northern Laos has already given me so many gifts in this short time.  Probably the most significant is a glimpse into Lao family structures and the place of women in society.  Like in most of Asia, and the world (unfortunately), women are expected to be subservient to the men.  But in Laos it feels a bit different.  Men here, it appears at least, assume much more hands-on roles as father’s to their children, fully sharing the parenting duties alongside the mother.  Women are also very entrepreneurial – producing crafts, farming the land, weaving silk into the most beautiful scarves, and setting-up stalls in the local street markets to sell their goods.  This movement in local micro-economic development, driven by Lao women, is a more recent development that has been aided by the growth of the tourism industry.  Most of the products that are produced include fine fabrics with ornate tribal designs, cloths children’s books, silk decor galore, brightly colored quilts with intricately cross-stitched scenes of the Mekong, animals and daily Lao life, and stunning gold-leafed paintings on rice paper.  A myriad of handmade crafts perfectly suited to fulfill any tourist passing through this rich land.  The growth of tourism in Laos (similar to Cambodia) has fueled the local economy, and in the process given rise to a heightened position for women in society.  Dabbled about in the street markets are women selling their art and their young babies sleep and eat and play right on top of the silk scarves and quilts we are shopping for.

Women weaving a silk scarf in her street stall

Like women in all parts of the world, women in Lao also face the challenge of balancing the need to provide for and at the same time care for the children.  I find this inspiring and a reminder for how much more we still have to do to further advance the position of women in society.  The road to true gender equality is still a distant vision on the horizon, and as I travel and as the years pass I find myself increasingly passionate about women’s rights and gender equality.  My heart breaks when I read about the reality many young girls face in Yemen being forced to marry at 8 years old and repeatedly raped and beaten by their “husbands” – and worse yet, they aren’t allowed to get divorced.  Tears stream down my face when I learn about young girls, who haven’t even reached puberty – sold as sex slaves – beaten by their owners and forced to eat dog feces to banish any hint of self-confidence and self-worth.  It’s probably hard for many you to read those words but it is the raw truth and we can’t hide behind rose-colored glasses any longer.  And while these are examples of the “worst of it”, at the same time women who have to work to put bread on the table and care for the children day-in and day out while (for many, not all) their “husbands” spend days at the bar or gambling their money away is also gravely unjust.  And this is why in Laos, families often prefer to marry their daughters to men who have spent at least several years as monks living at the wat, for they are considered closer to God and better suited to be a respectable & hard-working spouses.  Southeast Asia has brought forward the perilous challenges we face as humanity in achieving gender equality, and quite frankly I find it my responsibility to raise awareness so that we can bridge this gap in our lifetime.  Back to Laos… I also heard that more young Lao women everyday are receiving higher education in local colleges than their male counterparts.  And that this is in large part due to the fact that they are able to begin making money producing & selling their crafts at a young age, save the earnings, and invest it in their own education – their future.  This alone gives me a reason for hope – that it is possible to achieve gender equality in our lifetime.  So I guess that in itself is a good excuse to visit Laos and buy the beautiful silk scarves woven by these determined young women.  Women do hold up half the sky.

Man fishing in the Mekong River

I also appreciate the feeling of traditional daily life in Laos.  The pace is so slow and seemingly deliberate.  Watching young kids play naked along the rocks of the Mekong, jumping like little cannon balls into the sediment-filled water.  Meanwhile men tinker from rock to rock checking their fishing nets for the next meal.  The young girls who help their mothers make crepes for sale at the little street side stalls.  And the farmers that tend to their goats, rice paddies, and sugar cane plots that dot the lush green hillsides.  These are all glimpses into daily Lao life.  it is a good life.  Though it’s not always easy, it is wholesome life.

Girls playing in the field

Reading Suggestions –

Savoring Cambodia

9 Jun

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Bright pink and ruffled dragon fruits are poised gracefully in a large pile on a wooden table. Deep bowls filled with yellow turmeric, green kaffir lime leaves, and scarlet red hot chilies complete this illusionary sunset. To the left a woman sits indian style trimming meat in preparation for drying, her golden silk veil eluding to the expansion of Islam in traditionally Buddhist Cambodia. A woman walks through the tight market alley ways with a long pole stretched across her shoulder. From each end of the pole, two baskets hang down perfectly balanced. One is filled with a heaping mound of shredded green mango mixed with shredded carrots. On the other side there are a series of smaller bowls filled with fresh lime slices, dried fish pieces, ground peanuts, and a jug of fish sauce. These are makings of the Khmer version of mango salad. She carefully opens a plastic baggy and places a fistful of mango slaw inside, then she tops it with a bit of peanut, dried fish, squeeze of lime and a dash of fish sauce. She hands it over to her customer, lunch is served, and the she is paid 1,000 riles (25 cents). These are just some of Cambodia’s simple everyday culinary wonders.

Bright pink dragon fruit in the market
Fresh produce of all sorts is abound. I walk around the market with the tuk tuk driver I befriended, Pan, and we contemplate which place would best for lunch. At another stall a young man mixes turmeric, rice flour, water and egg into a thin batter for Khmer pancakes. This seems like an ideal stop. He laddels some batter onto a hot flat cooking surface, with a spoon he distributes the batter evenly and forms a large bright yellow circle. There it sizzles for several minutes before we carefully turns it over with a long flat wooden cooking tool. He then places mixture of cooked ground chicken, fresh crisp bean sprouts, spring onions, and a sprinkle of chiles into the middle of the cooking pancake. The pancake is then carefully turned over, closing in on the savoury filling and forming a bright yellow half moon. After just a few moments he slides the pancake onto an oblong plastic dish, its browned & crispy edges hang over the side of the dish. It comes out served with a small bowl of sauce – a concoction of ground peanuts fused with freshly squeezed lime juice and fish sauce – a handful of bright green lettuce leaves and slices of fresh cucumber. Mr. Pan shows me how to ea this delectable ensamble. Using your hands, you place a piece of the stuffed turmeric pancake on top of a leaf of lettuce and drizzle a spoonful of the sauce on top, allowing the sauce to run through the pancake & crevices of the lettuce. One bite and the blending of the fresh and bright ingredients is refreshing and satisfying. It’s the Cambodian version of the Turkish gozleme, the Costa Rican chorreada, or a savoury French crepe. And this is just one of a multitude of divine Khmer delights Cambodia has to offer.

I spent the afternoon afternoon taking with Pan. It gave me the opportunity to listen and learn about Khmer culture and daily life in this fine country. He is one of the older Cambodians I have seen and met, and he is just 41 years old. Cambodia has a very young population because the genocide in the 1970s left so many young children without parents or elders. Pan remembers well but he has made peace with it in his heart. He is also deeply motivated to strengthen Cambodia at all different levels. He has a vision to start an eco-tourism cooperative by getting together a diverse group of local Cambodian owned businesses (tuk tuk drivers, small hotels, family run restaurants, artists, photographers, local farms, etc.) and organizing unique cultural & nature oriented tours for foreign visitors. For now he is a very successful tuk tuk driver enjoying life with his wife and two children. Our conversation carries on into family, education, and the like. His son is 18 years old and just finished high school, the first in the family to go through school. His daughter will be turning just 3 years old in a couple of months. He later shares that he and his wife adopted their daughter, Myste which means ‘among the flowers’, from the local hospital in town. In Cambodia there are many orphaned children and its obvious that most do not have the means to provide for large families and at the same time birth control is also a commodity for the privledged. Pan and his wife told the Doctor at the hospital that they wanted to adopt a baby, the hospital did due diligence checking on their home, and bank account. Several months later Myste, at less than 4 weeks old, came into their lives. Chills came over me as he told me the story and showed me pictures of his wife & daughter, so much pride for his family. And even more beautiful is to see Cambodia’s effort to place orphaned children in average income-level local communities, where they can be loved by their communities and stay close to their roots. Ten years ago this was not as prevalent, as the tourism industry hadn’t grown enough to fuel the local economy to a scale that could foster this type of community development. This is just another way I see how deeply Cambodia is restored in peace and stability.

We continued to talk about life – and all things related to food. Like in all cultures, food is an important part of daily life here in the Kingdom of Wonder. Food is prepared and sold everywhere you look. On a little dirt road on the outskirts of town an older woman sits in the street. He has prepared a little fire, no more than 4 by 5 inches using just a couple of wooden sticks. To her right side is a small red plastic bucket. She takes a spoonful of batter and places it inside a small hand held waffle iron that rests on the hot coals. A slight sizzle sound is heard. After a minute or so she turned the piping hot iron, ensuring both sides are cooked to a perfect golden brown. Children on their way to school line-up at her street kitchen to savour a Khmer waffle.

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Lets talk about where the food here comes from. About the Land. And the people that work the land to make this bounty available. Siem Reap and its surrounding area is as flat as that turmeric pancake I had for lunch. There are also several natural and man made lakes here that provide water for irrigation, especially in the dry season. This land has been heavily famed for several thousand years. Over 1 million people survived by the ground I walk on during the Ancient Khmer Empire. Cultivating the land has always been a way of life for Cambodians yesterday and today. Like most “lost” civilizations, there is no exact proven fact as to why the ancient Khmer civilization here collapsed. Like the ancient Mayans and Incas, it is believed that the ancient Khmer civilization fell due to famine caused by desertification of the land after over a thousand years of over farming, leaving the land stripped of vital nutrients & minerals required to sustain productive soils. Much of the land was given a rest from these intensive agricultural practices for at least a few hundred years, allowing the Earth to rest and regain its strength through natural succession. Siem Reap has grown significantly in the last 35 years, and along with this is an increasing demand for greater food production. Many small villages survived by subsistence agriculture (producing only the food needed for their local community) but with the pressures of a globalized and tourism-driven Siem Reap, many have converted their land into larger mono-cultures producing a single variety of rice, cattle, crocodile, bananas, or pineapple. Ultimately provoking the same problems that led to the theorized fall of their ancestors. Worse yet is the rise of aristocrats from China and the Middle East (namely Saudi Arabia) that are buying up whole farms – and even entire villages – to produce rice & other agricultural commodities for export. Whole villages, and their people, are getting the land pulled right out from under them as it is being sold to these foreigners by the Cambodian government. These once sustainable and subsistent farmers loose all their autonomy – dignity & pride. Their land, once again being stripped of life. This is a grave injustice. And, I can’t help but ask why? After the Cambodian civil way in to 1970s, all existing records of land ownership and titles were burned. Leaving the villages and people without any evidence of their ownership of the land they survived by for hundreds of years. Without these records, the government is able to sell the land to foreigners at great profits, while destroying the livelihood for many at the same time. Cambodia is not alone in this nasty land-use transition. The same phenomenon is a growing problem in Laos and throughout much of Africa.

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Despite this sobering picture of Khmer agriculture, and its globalized demise, there are also a growing movement of small scale home grown organic agriculture. Several NGOs have sprung up that are dedicated to facilitating women’s empowerment through micro-economic development vis-a-vis home-based gardens. One of the major activities fostered by this movement is supporting women to use their existing land resources around their homes for small organic gardens. First they feed their family with the bounty they produce and whatever is left over is sold to one of a few socially & environmentally conscious restaurants in town. While this movement is one a much smaller scale than the foreign-owned mono-culture movement, it is still a powerful example for Cambodians. And with Pan’s vision and the home-based organic farming movement, Cambodia has a good chance at much brighter & peaceful future where future generations can flourish in the Kingdom of Wonder.

 

Recommendations in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Restaurants

Hotels

Love & Joy for Khmer

7 Jun

Royal palms reach into the heavans.  Beads of sweat drip down my face, legs, entire body.  Motos and Tuk Tuks glide past as a peddle along the recently paved roads.  The edges of the roads are painted red with patches of sun scortched earth and dust.  Many of these improvised transportation vehicles carry 10 times their weight in cargo… people; lumber; goods for sale –  you name it, it can be transported with just one little motor.  Then a buddhist monk flies by on moto with his ochre yellow garmet flowing in the wind like the sail of a boat over the sea.  Wooden hand carts are pushed down the road carrying wild mushrooms, raw snails, and bright green lotus flowers – all ready to be made into a variety of culinary delights.  Pungent flowers intoxicate my senses.  Sculptures of hindu and buddhist inspiration blend into the forest edge.  Children dressed in dark blue shorts and white shirts bound for school peddle by on bicycles three times their size.  All together we make our way down the dusty streets that wind through beautiful forested areas.  Listening to yellow marked blackbirds, croaking frogs, and a diversity of insects buzzing around – this is some of the natural music that helps to define this landscape.

Motorcycle carrying many people and cargo

Other children, less fortunate, sell bananas; water; books; silk scarves; and little woven bracelts to tourists passing through.  Their clothing tattered and for many, their hair is that rusty reddish brown color from a childhood of malnutrition.  They are persistent, determined to survive and build a better life for themselves and their families.   The markets are bustling with every type of meat, vegetable, herb and spice one can imagine – and food is being served from one staff while live river fish wiggle around on a wooden slab waiting to be sold. The aromas in the market are of some complex concotion, I can’t even identify a single ingredient – but more on the markets and cuisine later.  Lepers and disabled youth with missing legs from landmine explosions also dot this landscape.  And their voices are no longer silenced.  Women gather around a produce stall in the market and pour over photos of a new hospital center that recently opened and is dedicated to caring for the disabled.  There is hope.  And I am in the Kingdom of Cambodia.

Everything here just feels different.  I can’t quite explain the feeling.  The people. The culture.  The food. The air. The earth.  All so deeply defined by centuries of complex and compunded history.  Ancient human civilization is known to have existed in this vast & rich land since the Holocene era (6,000 BCE) and the Neolithic eras.  But it was really the civilizations during the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries that coaleced into what I’m experiencing as modern day Cambodia.  I can’t help but intermix modern and ancient Cambodian roots, for relation of past and present is so deeply connected here.

The Khmer Empire…. Angkor Wat, the heart of Cambodia.  The Khmer Empire began in 802 AD and today still defines in many ways the identity and essense of what it means to be Cambodian.  The Khmer language lives on.  Cuisine and cultural customs are still identified as Khmer.  Theravada Buddhism is evident in every step of daily life here.  It signifies the doctrine of analysis.  It encourages critical investigation in all things and reasoning instead of blind faith.  It came to Cambodia from Sri Lankan monks in the 13th Century – and here it lives on in daily Cambodian life.  In Theravada, it is believed that the path to enlightenment requires releasing one’s mind and being from their own ignorance to the truth.  Stepping beyond society’s desire and influence for oppulence.  Theravad and buddhism is far more than this but for the purposes on my own analysis of this “new” landscape its essense has been revealed.

Therevada Buddhist

I haven’t quite made sense of how Theravada Buddhism has survived Cambodia’s bloody history.  The Khmer regime of Jayavarman VII was known as one of the bloodiest in all of human history, which ultimately lead to the building of Angkor Wat, one of the largest & most intricate temples in the world.  And it tyranny was only matched by the Pol Pot Regime in the 1970s that characterized Cambodia’s genocide.  Nearly one third of Cambodia’s people perished at Pol Pot’s evil hands in the 1970s.   And another third of the Country fled as refugees to Thailand, Laos, China, the United States, and any other place of escape from the pervasive bloodshed.  Over 25 years later, the scars left from this modern genocide are evident from the moment you brush the dust from your eyes.  But yet there’s a special beauty revealed in the process, uncovering Cambodia’s cultural resilience is truly inspiring.

People here are friendly.  At every passing by on the bicycle a slight hello and glowing smile is exchanged.  Cambodians work hard and aim to please.  Families are very nuclear.  Their cuisine is distinct and they take great care in preparing their food, both in the fields that surround this entire area and in the outdoor kitchens of every home.  Men and women alike work hard to provide for their families.  Here most work is related to the booming tourism market.  So many unique niches make-up the tourist experience and fuel a stronger Cambodian economy at the local level on down to the individual and family levels.  Masseuses, tour guides, chefs, wait staff, artists, you name it – the jobs in tourism are abound.  And today this country enjoys one of the greatest rates of economic growth in all of Asia – 6%.  Despite this symbol of prosperity, the end of suffering is still a distant dream for many.  But hopefully, with responsible and sustainable development, the gaps between rich and poor can be bridged.  It is not easy to face the reality of daily life for many here, though I know in my heart that today is like heaven on earth compared to what it was like 25-35 years ago.  I can’t help but engage my mind and spirit on the people of all ages that work so hard for so little. Powerful feelings of love and compassion comes over me as I make eye contact and say hello.  I can almost see within, actually be within another.  And at each glance an exchange of energy occurs, its up to us to make it positive or make it negative.  I just can’t bring it upon myself to bring any negativity to this rich & complex land, it needs all the love we can bring.  Ignoring them feels like a horrible sin to me.  They are children, so many robbed of a decent childhood.  They are human.  We are all human.  And yet there is so much beauty here.  It’s just a matter of how you make sense of panorma of history, culture, and spirituality.

Cambodian artist outside Ta Prohm

Then there is the cambodian smile.  I have never before seen such beautiful smiles.  Each and every one is a ray of light and hope in this landscape of wonderous history and quest for survival.  The glow that emenates from each individual is remarkable in its own right.  And I hear giggles and laughter often accompanying the gleeful Cambodian smiles.  Where do these smiles come from?  So much joy from such a painful past.  How incredible.  Most people here have created a unique niche for themselves.  While one woman is a masseuse, another man is a Tuk Tuk driver, and another is a palm reader.  A local artist creates jewlery out of the metal from old used bullets, the remnants and reminders of a time past.  And a street shop proprietor cuts up durian fruit for sale to all who pass by.  Cambodia is in many ways a land of opportunity for this with the entrepreneur spirit and drive.  Social enterprise appears to be the single most important ingredient to restoring & building a more peaceful Cambodia.  To experiencing joy in daily life in Cambodia.

Both love and joy for Cambodia are felt throughout my soul.

63 Islands of Efficiency

5 Jun

Welcome in flowers in Little India

From the moment I got off the plane I could see the signs of efficiency at every turn. At immigration, there were automated lines where Singaporean residents just swiped a card and a machine scanned their finger print. For foreigners there was a long bank of border control agents that issued visitor visas. Not a single line at any of them, I just walked-up handed over my passport and off I went. Sure beats the 2 hour immigration lines at US Airports. And then there was the big bold red letters on my tourist carrd – Warning Death for Drug Trafficers Under Singapore Law. A stinging reminder that this is a land that embraces judicial corporal punishment. There is no trial by jury and you are proven guilty before proven innocent. Singapore is thought to have the highest execution rate in the world. And you are reminded of these strict laws at every turn. $1,000 fine for riding your bike through a walking tunnel. $500 fine for littering on the street. Death for firearm offenses, murder, etc. The list goes on.

Despite this stark reality. Singapore is the world’s fourth largest financial center. It gives the vibe of intellect, progress, and accomplishment in every nuance. There are skyscrapes as far as the eye can see, and tropical rainforest trees and gardens are interlaced throughout a sea of glass and steel.

Singapore Skyscrapers

Along with the immense sense of economic development, vanity and wealth really is everywhere. Shopping malls are all around and filled with only the highest end European and American shops. Gucci. Yves Saint Laurent. Prada. Jimmy Choo. Such a sharp contrast from the rest of Southeast Asia that we’ll be exploring over the next two weeks.

It’s not just all about money and lack of individual freedom. There are also a million wonderful things about this island country made-up of 63 islands, totaling just 224 square miles. Singapore has mastered efficiency. You order a taxi on your mobile device and its at your door in under 5 minutes, no questions asked and no delays. Street access for cars during peak times is controlled by automated tolls controlled by microchips in every car. There are no homeless or shanty towns, the government subsidizes adequate housing for all Singaporeans regardless of income. There is no garbage. There are no rats. There are no cockroaches. None has or carries firearms – except the police of course. And a sense of personal safety is shared by all. These are all things I really appreciate about Singapore.

Its also a land of beautiful cutural fusion. Malays. Chinese. Indians. Europeans. Indonesians. Americans. Hindu. Christian. Muslim. Buddhist. They all call this home and many of them are ‘Singaporeans’. From my short time here is appears all ethnicities and religions coexist in harmony with one another. There does appear to be some class divisions based on ethnicity to a certain degree, but not absolute divisions.

Flower necklaces in Little India

One of the areas of this island nation that I really loved was Little India. It was very authentic in terms of all food & decor Indian and Hindu. Except it was probably a million times cleaner than any Indian city and there was no sign of poverty anywhere. Vibrant flower neclaces hung at little carts along the narrow streets. The pungent aromas of Indian spices hung in the dense hot & humid air. Glimpses of glittery gold and beaded sarees adorned women at every turn. We walked on through the many bazaars. Then we came across a neat little area where a few women sat on plastic stools at tables with other women carefully painting detailed designs
on the skin of other Indian women. These women are henna artists. Their hands moved swiftly with a little henna pen that released a small amount of ink onto the skin, forming the designs of intricate flowers, mandalas, birds, and more. This is Little India in Singapore and I loved it.

Henna artist in Little India

Moving on. Other cultures collide in this serendipitous landscape. I just happened to be in Singapore during the Dumpling festival. This is one of the local traditions that originates from the Chinese influence here. Its a typical street festival. With dancers, street performers, traditional music, and all the like. And of course lots of rice dumplings were sold all over the streets. The dumplings consist of rice sweetened with cane sugar or honey and stuffed with a myriad of meats, vegetables, nuts, and spices. They are bundled in banana leaves, tied with string, steamed, and hung out on long poles for sale in the streets. I tried a vegetable rice dumpling and it was delicious. Its basically an Asian version of a tamale. Then there are hawker stands everywhere that sell a variety of other asian dishes and fresh juices. I washed down the dumpling with some fresh pineapple-celery juice. Perfectly refreshing!

Rice Dumplings

Now on to the rest of Asia!

Turkish Iskender Delight

7 May

I promised all of my meat loving friends that I would explore how the Turks make meat divine.  It took me nearly the entire trip here to give it my attention, and well I am glad that I did.  This morning I had the final conference sessions, and as soon as they got out off I went wandering the streets of Antalya.  I wove through all of the downtown neihborhoods and found that they come to life on the weekend.  The parks were filled with Turks of all ages doing everything you can think of -skateboarding, playing backgammon, napping on the grass, biking, playing music, drinking tea from little tulip shaped glasses, and cooking kebab on small charcoal grills.

The streets were equally alive.  Saturday is shopping day for most and Antalya has a myriad of large bazaars selling cloths, spices, textiles, jewelry, shoemakers – you name it, they have a shop for it.  Some shops are nothing more than a table with a bunch of trinkets sprawled out.  Others are groupings of little one room shops and traditional restaurants are intermingled in this sea of micro-commerce.  Many of the shops are run by families, which to me is very neat.  I also found a small narrow street that consisted of 10 or so little enclosed booths.  They served as the workshops and storefronts for Antalya’s shoemakers.  I’ve never seen so many shoemakers, all producing shoes on customer order only.  You visit one of the shoemakers and tell him what kind of shoes you want, and he goes to work making your shoes.  Carefully cutting the leather, stitching the sole to the show, sewing on appliques.  I like the idea of bringing back these types of micro-enterprises and trades.

Now onto today’s foodie experience.  After a few of hours weaving around the sunny streets of Antalya I found an area where there were several traditional kebab restaurants.  The doner kabab meat rotates on a large vertical cooking device, it continually cooks over low heat  that brings to life the aromatics of the spices laced within the meat & natural juices.  This seemed like the perfect opportunity to give Turkish meat a try – and I am glad I did.  All of the restaurants in this area were filled only with local Turks, so I put my bet that this would be one of the best places.  I took a seat at a table outside, dining al fresco is the best way to go in Antalya.  The waiter kindly gave me the menu, all in Turkish yet again! But this time the Turkish names & descriptions were accompanied by photographs of each dish.  This was most helpful.  I gave my broken Turkish a whirl and placed my order with the waiter.   Here you have to order using portion sizes in grams.  Given how large servings here are, I went for the small portion (100 grams).  And out it came 20 minutes later – a heaping plate of what I call Turkish Iskender Delight.   Thin slices of the doner kebab meat cooked in an aromatic sauce of tomatoes, onions, and spices.  Served up on a bed of cubed pita bread, all the saucy doner kebab meat drenched the pita cubes with its delicious juice.  It was served with four thick slices of sweet tomatoes, a big spoonful of natural plain yogurt, and one fresh hot pepper.  The meat was so flavorful and juicy.  The yogurt gave the dish a cooling sensation to balance the crisp hot pepper pieces I ate with each bite of donor kebab meat.  I was also divine – like most all food in Turkey so far.  After I finished my meal, I went inside and spoke with the chef for a few minutes.  He was busy chopping up fresh herbs and cucumber.  I do believe this meal of Turkish Iskender Delight was cooked with love!

Color photo of a plate of Turkish Iskender Delight

My only “complaint” – even the small portion was too big for one person.  An hour after this wonderous foodie experience I went for a 5k run along the Mediterranean Sea!  Now back to eating fresh & clean.

Turkish Nuances

4 May

I’ve been in Turkey for 5 full days now.  And I am happy to say that I have 5 more days remaining here – except that I will be busy working most of the time, which has also proved very inspiring.  But this blog is about traveling and life, not about my work.  So back to Turkey and all its wonderous peculiarities!

I’ve established a kind of daily routine here that I really enjoy.  I woke-up around 5:30am and spent some time catching-up on email and then headed out for a sunrise run.  It felt so good to jog along the Mediterranean Sea at sunrise, looking out at the mist hanging above the water and a few distant sailboats on the horizon.  The roads near my hotel are ancient, from the Roman Era, and I pass the ruins of an old Mosque from the Middle ages before heading down to the edge of the Sea.  Then there is another ancient Mosque from the 13th Century CE – it is a beautiful house of devotion even with all its signs of age and simplicity.  The minaret (the large tower where the 5 daily prayers are announced daily) was made of old stone and had a beautiful scalloped structure.  The domes of the mosque’s main building were made with a terra cotta roof.  Simple really is beautiful.  From one outlook you can see this mosque and the towering minarets of 2 other mosques in the distance.  It is a profound view.

Color photo of skyline in Analya Turkey

All of the roads are really just for pedestrians here, which suited me perfectly.  I jogged along a nice road along the Coast that runs through a very large tree covered park next to the regional soccer stadium.  I enjoyed passing by all the locals, mostly proprietors of little shops opening up for the day.  I’ve been practicing my Turkish every free moment I get, which is not much, but now I am comfortable with the basic phrases.  It is customary here to say hello and good morning to everyone you see – strangers and all.  And I LOVE this about Turkish culture.  It was one of the things I learned, and loved, when living in Costa Rica.  Except here you say “Salam” which is the equivalent for “hello” – except that is actually means “Peace be with you”.  What a wonderful salutation!  I do think the world would be a better place simply if we all greeted each other with such kind words.  It would be such a simple part of our daily lives that I think would change our outlook on life and others.  And in these morning jogs and walks I’ve picked-up this cultural nuance and ensure I give my respectable greetings.  With that, i’ve been surprised at how respectable men are to women here, and how well I am treated.  But I’ll share more on that in my next blog.  All this was just great food for thought to start the morning!

Then there was a delightful foodie experience this morning.  Breakfast.  When I got back to the hotel breakfast was just about ready.  It is buffet style – as the Turks love buffets!  I’ve befriended the chef at the hotel restaurant and he has graciously educated me on Turkish cuisine, how the dishes are cooked and which spices to use for what, etc.  This morning the buffet included bowels of fresh herbs and a variety of greens that looked so fresh I couldn’t resist – red leaf lettuce, rocket, lemon arugula, fresh dill, mint & parsley.  It’s a salad kind of morning!  And there I created a masterpiece.  A tower of vibrant leafy greens topped with aromatic spices, crumbled feta, and fresh lemon squeezed lemon.  All this paired with a hard boiled egg, fresh cucumber slices, a dollop of natural yogurt, and fresh tomatoes of course.  My whole body felt good after this clean and hearty breakfast.  I want to start having salad breakfasts a couple days a week.  If you haven’t tried a salad breakfast like this before, it’s not too late to give it a try.  And with summer just around the corner, tis the season to grow all these delicious greens and fresh veggies.  Add a little protein and you’ll have an energy packed day.  A lot of people wonder where I get my energy from, well I think God blessed me with a little extra energy but I also try to feed that energy with things like fresh greens and clean foods.  Now I’m not always fresh and clean like this but most of the time it works out.  Now if this breakfast, doesn’t make your mouth water I don’t know what to say. Bon Apettit!

Color photo of a Turkish Breakfast

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