Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Life with Chinese Characteristics, Chapter 17: Camping out in Cambodia

Well hello there, friends,

It's been quite some time since I connected with you here, and I am glad to be back to writing in this space.

If the title to this post has elicited images of me in REI pants crawling into a tent near a beach or in a jungle or whatever your ideas about Cambodia are, I have misled you. While in Cambodia, my Barcelona Bestie, Liz, and I did not sleep outside -- though we may have thought we were sleeping in a tent with the number of mosquitoes that kept us company some nights -- nor did we experience harsh living conditions (actually quite the contrary).

But I'm an English teacher. And I like alliteration.

And thefreedictionary tells me that camping out also means to live in a place other than one's own home for a period -- in our case, one adventure-filled week of living out of our suitcases in three different Cambodian cities.

To begin, we almost missed our plane to Siem Reap, which would have meant camping out in the Hong Kong airport for some time. China dealt Liz a curve ball in the form of #chinabelly. I'll leave it at that. Liz and I have actually missed a plane before -- to Dublin from Barcelona -- and we are familiar with the expensive repercussions of such a disappointing event, but luckily, this time we made it onto the plane and landed in our first host city as originally anticipated.

The first night of our vacation found Liz tucked into bed early at our lodging, the Saem Siem Reap Hotel, with me, ever the true friend, whispering nos vemos and slipping out the door to find some fine dining. Thanks to Aunt Linda's recommendation with honorable mentions to Google Maps, I found my way to Malis, known for its "living Cambodian cuisine." I ordered a delicious set menu comprised of six delicious courses and I wish I could show you some of those plates, but the camera did not eat first. I did.

While I was dining, sipping out of a fresh coconut, I reflected back to my middle school days. I had had a small part in the school play. I do not remember the name of the play, but I do remember the subject: the Khmer Rouge. I also do not remember understanding the content of the drama well, but I can recall understanding the tone to be very dark. Before landing on Cambodian soil, I read Loung Ung's memoir First They Killed My Father, and upon closing the book, I understood much more about the horrors brought upon thousands of innocent people. 

I am reminded of one of the most powerful quotes I have read. Travel writer Mark Jenkins writes,

"Adventure is a path. Real adventure -- self-determined, self-motivated, often risky -- forces you to have firsthand encounters with the real world. The world the way it is, not the way you image it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind -- and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white."

During our week in Cambodia, Liz and I experienced first hand the beautiful kindness of countless people. As part of our itinerary, created by Xoa at AsiaTourAdvisor, we also visited Security Prison 21 in Phnom Penh. The experience grew our awareness of Cambodia's recent dark struggle. The lessons that come out of studying the regime led by the Khmer Rouge tell us less about Cambodia in particular, and more about, as Jenkins names it, the "bottomless cruelty of humankind" and what happens when people's desire for power is fueled by corruption and is deeply, darkly self-serving.

Alas, the trip did begin with a great deal of light and exciting adventure, especially as Liz woke up our first morning feeling much better than when we had landed the afternoon before.

Day 1: 
After breakfast, our guide Vuthy met us to take us to Ta Prohm and Angkor Wat, two oft-visited ancient ruins of the Khmer people. Having trekked four days to see Machu Picchu in Cuzco, Peru, Liz and I were quite kiddy to be exploring another ancient civilization together. Rather than overwhelm this post with history, I'll let the pictures speak for themselves. (In truth, I don't remember the historical facts about the ruins, but I do remember vividly our delight.)

Some of our first sights of the ruins.

Apsara dancer: these figures represent the female spirit of the
clouds and water in Hindu and Buddhist culture. 

Nature is cool and encroaching. Those roots grew right over the ruins.

But how tall were the Angkor people??

Barcelona Besties up close ...
and far away.

Liz and I acquired some wickedly cool super powers while in Cambodia. #threeplacesatonce

Quintessential Angkor Wat photo.

The afternoon finished with Liz sitting down for her sak yant, or magical, tattoo. You'll notice in the following photos that this tattoo is made permanent using a needle attached to a bamboo stick. This was a fascinating, and rather hair-raising activity to view. Liz gave an offering before she sat for the tattoo, and the tattoo was blessed after it was completed.

Liz looking at her hand and repeating her mantra.

Post-tattoo blessing

Nothing will make you hungry like watching your friend summon her superpowers to sit for an hour of traditional tattooing.

We made our way to Marum for dinner.

A note on Marum: It is part of the tree-alliance organization that works to take youth off of the streets and equip them with life-long work skills. Tree-alliance has sprouted restaurants in many Cambodian cities, including one in Phnom Penh called Friends. We loved the food, cocktails and service in the tree-alliance restaurants, as well as the hand-made, fair trade goods in the attached stores.

Day 2: 
I so highly recommend using a guide for this trip, especially those from AsiaTourAdvisor. I am receiving no kick-backs from lauding their services. I simply could not have imagined a trip of more ease when it comes to the logistics of travel. And in wanting you to have such a wonderful experience too, I advice you to seek them out if you are traveling to Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos or Thailand.

Vuthy arrived to the hotel on our second full day with bikes in the van. We were heading out to more temples, those of Angkor Thom, on two wheels. It's cool that we were getting our steps and peddles in so far on the trip because we weren't going to be skimping on the amount of Cambodian fare we were shoveling into our mouths.

Vuthy! Best. Guide. Ever!

When your guide knows where to go to explore ruins without the crowd.
I am being judicious with my photos because I can't get enough of reminiscing already.

One side of Angkor Thom entrance ...
And the other. #peace
The many faces of Bayon.
Some people spend all that time kissing frogs to find a prince. This is my approach. #waitingpatiently

After a morning and afternoon of biking, Xoa had booked us for a personal cooking class. The ambiance was refreshingly rural and beautifully authentic as we chopped farm fresh meat and produce to whip up green mango salad, curry and coconut soup.

I'm starving ... both in the photo and as I type on my chair now.
Smell-o-photo -- who's on it?
Cooking and dining under a Cambodian sunset.

Day 3: 

On the way to the Battambang, "the leading rice producing province for the country," Vuthy took us on a high-speed, open-air adventure: a bamboo train. Now I haven't ridden the high speed trains in China yet, but I don't think they will offer the same hair-whipping, grin-plastering experience that the bamboo train did. If this was my mode of transportation to work everyday, I wouldn't need coffee.

It was a little rickety, but so fun!
Ready, set, go!

With some adrenaline pumping in our veins, we hopped back into the car after our train ride had come to an end. Our next stop was seeing a floating village -- that's right, a village with a floating school, a church, a boat that motors around selling meat and fresh produce, and a restaurant with alligators.

I wonder how many pews fit inside there?
I could let the water rock me to sleep each night. You?
After while crocodile ...
Once we'd left the gators, we were back in the car to complete the drive to Battambang.

At first I was less impressed with the experience in Battambang than I had been with our time in Siem Reap, but I came to deeply appreciate what Vuthy sought to show us in this place. One of our stops as we entered the city was to see how rice paper is made. My back began to ache as I watched one woman, who wore a smile upon her rosy face, swiftly spread the thinnest layer of rice paste onto a rubber surface to cook over a pot.

As Liz and I watched on, I noted the efficient and laborious process that this woman and her mother engaged in for many hours each day. In a day's work, they would make enough rice papers to earn $25.

The thinnest layer of rice paste spread, it is almost transparent.

Drying the rounds to dry into the hardened rice papers we buy in stores.

When we returned to the car, I considered my privileged life. I work hard, yes. But it is largely circumstance -- my birth country, the efforts of my parents, the socio-economic sphere I was born into, my private college education -- that allows me to spend more on a meal than many make in a day. I have a life that, as a balance to the many hours of focused work that I do from week to week, offers me the opportunity to explore places near and far.

There was plenty to contemplate as we slept in our sweet room at the Battambang Resort that night.

Day 4: 
We arrived to Phnom Penh the following day where we checked in to the Harmony Hotel. The infinity pool at Harmony proved a perfect place with a cool view for lackadaisical froggy laps in the afternoons.
The best part of this day was seeing a friend who had worked in Shenzhen and now works in Phnom Penh. Leti is a beautiful wife, mother, friend and fellow runner and she invited Liz and I to her family's home for wine before our dinner at Friends. Spending some time with her, her husband Eric and two young boys, Gael and Luke was a delight. I have written about it before, and I continue to marvel at how this big world is actually rather small in the way that our paths can cross time and again. With your wine or tea, let's toast to friendships around the world. ¡Salud!


Day 5: 

This morning began in somber fashion as our guide brought us to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. On a date last year, the man I was dining with noted that he would never pick Cambodia as a vacation destination because it would be a trip too laden with darkness. My experience was much too full of light to agree with him, though the genocide museum and Khmer Rouge Killing Fields are how he was defining Cambodia.

The museum was a difficult experience, but I feel drawn to understand the world and humanity in all of their truths. As Liz and I walked the grounds of the prison, which had previously been a school before the Khmer Rouge occupation, we read the stories of the prisoners, nearly all of whom were executed.

What can be learned from such a museum? I continue to ponder tonight. I do not know the answer entirely. I do think about how much the world needs each of us to shine light. This will strike you deeply as you look on into the cells where men and women were mercilessly tortured. Again I am reminded of striking words, these from writer L.R. Knost:

"Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you."

What is most difficult, perhaps, about visiting the museum is knowing that such atrocities continue in our world today. Do I feel capable of stopping them? I do not. But my single voice, my single light, combined with all of yours, they can shift energy, and bring goodness into dark corners and help to ease others' suffering.

When I walk down the street, am I aware of the woman on the corner who could use a warm smile? When I step into my classroom, am I ready to embrace my students, whatever their moods? When I am shopping online, am I considering who is making those clothes, and in what conditions they are working? No, I cannot stop a regime, but my decisions can bring mindfulness to the world, and I hang on to hope that through some sort of butterfly effect, they spread something light far and wide.

After our time at the genocide museum, Liz and I followed our guide to the Royal Palace, which was quite the juxtaposition to the prison.

One of the many ornate buildings within the gates of the Royal Palace.
I kind of wanted to step into this scene. It felt serene.
I love doors. Who are we when we step inside? And who have we become when we step outside?

We then continued on to the National Museum which houses "many fine examples of Angor Wat statuary" within its sandstone walls.

Day 6: 
Another biking expedition ensued on our 6th and final full day in Cambodia. While the bikes we rode through the temples in Siem Reap were spanking new comfortable mountain bikes, the ones we rode through the Mekong Islands were not. By the end of our ride, I was wishing that all of the food I had eaten on the entire trip had gone straight to my ass to add extra cushion.

This complaint aside, the quick ferry to Koh Dach, or the Silk Island, offered us a glimpse of more rural life. Living in Shenzhen, and working at Shekou International School, I am surrounded by fast-paced life, bright lights and a great deal of technology. Koh Dach is quite the contrast to my everyday life, and refreshingly so in many ways.

As we rode along, uniformed school children rode their bikes and scooters past us, smiles plastered on their faces as they returned home for lunch. Men and women worked in a field under the hot Cambodian sun. And a woman drove a mobile market around -- with who seemed to be her grandson -- selling meat and produce.

I loved the more rural side of this trip. And I am also grateful for my day job.
Just Gram and I, doing our thang.

Our final stop on Koh Dach was to see how silk is made. As we watched the women spin gorgeous patterns into scarves and tapestries, I was like, "yeah man, women do run the world.

I was awed by her flawless technique.
A beautiful scarf with peacocks.

Our final night in Cambodia was spent back at the National Museum watching a performance from the Cambodian Living Arts troupe. As we settled into our seats to watch Earth and Sky, a "magical journey through Cambodian mythology, ancestral traditions and village life" I felt the pulse of Cambodia. It was one of life and dynamic spirit.


 While Liz and I did not camp out in Cambodia in any rustic sense of the phrase, we did settle in for an epic experience. With each trip that I take, I am grateful for the new layers of life that I become privy to as I am immersed into vibrant cultures and places.

Until next time, Cambodia.

Sending love and light to all my friends and family.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Life with Chinese Characteristics, Chapter 16: Under the Sri Lankan sun

Enchantment is a word that often carries with it an allusion to fairy tales. Enchanted castles, enchanted forests, enchanting knights in shining armor. The word has taken on a new connotation for me throughout my travels. I have discovered a great deal of beauty as I have explored parts of South America and Asia; nestled in to rustic and quaint abodes, I have found many adventures and places of peace. Perhaps the first time that these two elements came together most deeply was when I landed in Cuzco and set out on the Inka trail with Liz. The lush green jungle in the cloud forest air that mingled with the history along those steps certainly did enchant me. The experience spoke to some part of my soul, filling me with awe and wonder. This past week I was enchanted by another land. 

I arrived very late to Villa de Zoysa, a yoga retreat two hours outside of Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo. When I awoke to take a closer look at my surroundings, I found immediately that the spirit of the villa and the space surrounding me awoke my spirit.

Morning sunlight filters into my room.
Stepping outside of my room, this was my first daylight view of the colonial home built in 1907.
The shala where we practiced yoga in the morning and early evening each day.
View of the pool and mansion from inside the shala. This was a beautifully serene place to practice yoga.
Kindred connections are those where some part of your soul awakens, and in standing in that land, or next to that person, you have a strong sense that you are just where you are supposed to be. And so it was with Sri Lanka.

I hope that you'll continue to read along with my words, both poetry and prose, to feel something of the charm of the 'The most beautiful island in the world.'

Above the white waves cresting
thin gossamer clouds form and float lazzily
under the Sri Lankan sun
Around the sun a large orb circles
Perhaps the sun's own kind of shadow --
-- not of darkness but of light
I lay my head back and breath in 
inhaling deeply the sweet sea air
The scene surrounding me is spotted by sunbathers,
friends running into the waves
as laughter rings out
and chimes in the breeze
a Sri Lankan woman wearing a baseball cap
to cover the top of her long braid
sells bright colored silk bed tapestries
while jet skiis play in the distance
and small boats rock gently in the water
as a lone snorkeler kicks by

Appearing rather sun-kissed here, those rays had their way with my
Northern Italian-German-Scandinavian
skin after an afternoon of sunbathing.
Sri Lankan scene -- roadside fruit market.
Sri Lankan scene -- stilt fishermen.

The sun sets in Sir Lanka
setting the sky on fire
reflecting onto the shore

After my day at the beach, I spent the following afternoon in Galle, a short tuk-tuk ride from the villa. 

An Unesco World Heritage Site, Galle is surrounded by an expansive wall as the city was founded by Portuguese colonialists in the 1500s. It is a town with a rich history. Walking its streets you will pass mosques, churches, museums, and Dutch colonial architecture. There are delightful cafes like Poonies where you may enjoy a light lunch surrounded by a lovely ambiance. 

Under the Sri Lankan sun I sit
atop the fort in Galle
Seagulls squak
lovers look into each others' eyes
Buddhist monks and European tourists traverse
the path along the ancient wall
Glass aquamarine waves keep rolling below me
creating hypnotic sounds of the sea

Villa de Zoysa is owned by a man named Devinda. He comes from a family with a rich and interesting history, and I hope some of you reading this post might some day get to sit and talk with Devinda about the stories of his past, and how his present came to be. He is an excellent host. One afternoon he took another guest, Lola who arrived from Paris, and me to a Buddhist temple that was off the beaten path. 

Sitting by the beach later this afternoon Devinda was telling me more about what he has learned from Buddhism. As large waves crashed into rocks that jutted out of the sea, Devinda spoke to me about the Middle Way. In Buddhist philosophy, the Middle Way is about balance. While the world is full of opposites, our work is to find the center of it all. I pondered this as I watched the rolling waves, mesmerized by their beauty. The pace of our modern approach to life often makes me feel that I am in the center of one of those waves, turning and rolling over, unable to find the surface, to catch my breath.

It was amidst all of the beauty that was my time in Sri Lanka that I found my center. Sri Lanka offers many opportunities to explore and discover, but I consciously chose to stay close to my abode for the week. Life in Shenzhen has been moving at a harried pace this year. What I was seeking on this trip was stillness. With a slower pace, both in yoga classes in the day's relaxing activities, my senses began to calm. 

She lives a dream
wholly awake.

Under the Sri Lankan sun
she opens her heart to the sea.

She is not a lady in waiting
She is not wishing
or wanting
She is already whole
in the world.

On my last night at Villa de Zoysa, Devinda took a group of us to another nearby temple. There we were blessed by a Buddhist monk as he tied a white string around our wrists. When we sat down to dinner after returning from the temple, I asked Devinda what the monk had said in his blessing. "I did not catch it all," he replied, but what I did hear was "May the wisdom, foresight and light guide you." And so it may be with all of us, this is my Easter prayer.