Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"There Is Never Enough Time To Do All The Nothing You Want"

“What I heard then was the melody of children at play.” Nabokov

I love summer. Lovelovelovelove Summer. I love how the sun comes up around five and it isn’t dark until nine at night. I like the sound of the cicadas. I remember the crickets and frogs from Texas, a sound rare here. The trees are lush and green; flowers are in full bloom and it is blissfully hot. Everything looks healthy and robust. I like the way wind sounds as it brushes the cottonwood leaves. It’s my favorite time of the year and yet only lasts twelve short weeks. Last summer I discovered rising early every summer day away from the hospital allowed me time to accomplish more “nothing”. Too bad this summer is the exception. Not only am I accomplishing absolutely nothing but I’m sleeping in like a teenager. I did manage to knock back the weeds, deadhead the flowers and plant a few more things after we returned from our vacation. But that was with help and only because the yard, garden and flowerbeds were in rough shape after two weeks of neglect. But suddenly, I’m seized with a complete lack of interest in doing anything other than lying in the sun on the lounge chair and reading. Mind you last summer I did this, too but only after my chores and projects were accomplished. My summer work ethic has flown far far away. I hope it’s landed and someone is putting it to good use.

I think my generation is the second generation to enjoy summer, free of gritty hard work. I grew up in the suburbs so it wasn‘t like I had to work on a farm, either. Always the suburbs, the halcyon place of comfort and ease. Especially during the summer: no school, a few chores and plenty of time to wander the wild spaces just on the other side of the fence or swim in the local pool, cruise the neighborhood on my bike, or lounge around the boat dock. The only thing I had to worry about was going to the swimming pool, getting a ride to the library, which trashy reruns was I going to watch and if I was eating dinner at my friend’s house or my house. My father’s generation worked from a young age, either odd jobs in town or on the farm. When I am sentimental about my childhood it is summer I remember. Not winter, spring or back-to-school autumns. Playing hide and seek in the Big Thicket just on the other side of our yard in SE Texas; when it was safe to let your seven year old out of your line of sight, untethered by a cell phone with GPS, barefooted no less. My child’s memory thinks we wandered miles from home but if I were to return to this place I would find it much more compact and nearby. That is, if it were there to explore. The Big Thicket is almost completely gone except for a few acres the Indians managed to hold away from the developers. That wild space in summer taught me the names of flowers and that I must be immune from poison ivy and oak because it was rampant in the piney woods. I stopped wandering around barefooted after a snake bite (in our front yard) when I was eight. But it’s still an act of God’s grace in action OF (oldest friend) and I didn’t turn over a rock and awaken a dozing rattle snake in New Mexico. Blessed be, not even a scorpion sting, only a honey bee sting. Perhaps I had my due with a venomous snake bite? I was almost a teenager when we moved back to Texas and a creek ran close to our home with a marshy bit of woods but I was too old for that and preferred just walking the neighborhood streets with a friend or two. This, and one of my good friends had a pool in her backyard Wandering the creek was for little kids. But once my incarceration at the lake began, I would wander around the fields near our land. I hated going to the lake with my parents; it was made bearable if a friend came along. My two best friends’ parents were convinced their daughters were taking advantage of my parents. Years later, I explained to one of my friends’ mom (the friend with the pool) that T didn’t eat much and it kept me from driving my mother insane. One would think, that my love affair with summer would have made weekends at the lake even sweeter. Or that a lake was way better than a swimming pool. Not so much.

There was plenty of nothing to do that first summer at the lake. For me at least. I certainly wasn’t going to build a retaining wall or help pour cement for the boat dock. Or move dirt from one pile to the other. I was way way too busy being miserable to help with the work. I think by August we had a television in the trailer. If I remember correctly it a miniscule black and white set with a terrible antenna. Maybe. We did have a radio but my father had me convinced the only station it would get was an AM Country station. What, being SO FAR from the city and all. I think I was in my thirties when I figured out he had lied to me so I wouldn’t bother touching the radio to find another more suitable station. That first summer at the lake, I read War And Peace. I was thirteen and I read Tolstoy. That’s freakin’ bored. And I wrote probably the most anachronistic historical romance ever written by a young girl. I found a copy of it when we moved to The Fabulous House In The Suburbs. I very systematically ripped the spiral notebook into tiny pieces, a time consuming task which offered up plenty of time for me to wince and throw up a little in my mouth as I read each astoundingly bad word. Dad foolishly tried to get me interested in fishing. Again. A few years before, he tried to take the family fishing. I was not having any part of it and so noisy no one was catching fish until he rigged my line and for forty years (yes, 40 not 4) I thought I had caught that fish. “Catching” the fish probably only kept me quiet for an hour or so but that’s better than nothing. So he thought maybe I was a grown up enough to enjoy down time, sitting in a boat at dawn staring at the water and a small piece of nylon string. Because, yeah, that is way way more interesting than watching a snowy version of the Match Game or reading Tolstoy at the decent hour of ll:30 in the morning. And to my credit, I tried but I stopped trying because I did have a few minutes of mature, empathetic clarity, and felt sorry for Dad because it seemed like all he did was untangle my line. Is it any wonder the second and third summer we had a lake place, my parents let me stay with my sister in Southern California for a few weeks? I’m sure their ears stopped ringing from the complaints, sighs and whining after about ten days of being blissfully teenager angst free. I never asked them what they did while I was gone that month: I probably don’t want to know.

One of the best summer’s ever was the summer of ‘82. My hours as a nurses' assistant at the hospital had been reduced and I was living with my best friend, her boyfriend and Jack. That July, BF-boyfriend and I camped our way to the Texas coast, with stops in Austin and San Antonio. BF couldn’t go; she was starting her career as a nurse that summer. It was also the summer I read Lolita with Jack. We took turns reading it out loud to each other. This came about because I had been reading Tess Of The d’Urbervilles and was so depressed by it, my three housemates took it away from me, sick of my tears and rants about the injustice of it all. I‘m not sure why Jack thought Humbert Humbert‘s fantasies of a young girl were going to make it all better. I wish I could ask him. That summer was the beginning of Jack’s untimely and premature march towards a senseless and completely preventable death. Because he is gone, the memories are a little sweeter and more precious. I’m thankful the two most painful episodes in my life happened in the summer months because I know they were made more bearable by the simplicity and generosity of the season. Besides that, the painful stuff always seemed to happen just before school started again and the new school year made everything new in one episode and the other episode just gave me courage to start a new life one autumn.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Final Thoughts On The Whole Thing

I think we have been home for almost 48 hours and I'm still unsure what day it is. The jet lag feels like the first six weeks of my sons' lives when I slept in fits and starts for no longer than two hours and to top it all off: I have very stubborn bug bites (thankfully nothing more exotic or persistant than sand fleas from the beach)so I'm a bit of an itchy sleep deprived mess. But a happy sleep deprived itchy mess because I got the best news while I was away: the candidate they originally picked for the job I wanted did not respond to their offer and after a week they decided to give it to me! w00t! With a touch of a raise, too! Our last day (Wednesday? Tuesday? wha-?) was especially celebratory.

When The Girl announced she made the executive decision we were staying in a five star hotel versus a three star guest house part of me was a little: OMG just how much is this going to cost and the other part of me was "phew! luxury after the big long bus ride!" Luxury beats economy when you are a Pretty Pretty Princess. Luxury beats economy in the third world when you have saved money for almost a year for a really big holiday. I've never stayed in such a beautiful place, either. I'm a princess but I'm cheap and the idea of going to a spa style hotel and spending four figures on a hotel and pampering treatments makes my stomach and head hurt simultaneously, I like my creature comforts but I have also become a sensible princess. But really who could resist this.

Added to these beautiful surroundings was an amazing restaurant that did everything right at $-$$. Not to mention, TG had worked her negotiating magic and had procured us some extra deals. The big down size is I'm now ruined for any other hotel experience. The only disappointing thing about this experience was the FCC was never a Foreign Correspondents Club like the one in PP. So instead of rubbing elbows with grizzled, road worn journalists, content to tip back their tumblers of scotch as they mulled over the scene they witnessed in Bangkok; tapping out stories on laptops or trading stories about coups covered back in the '80's. Nah, the only people we rubbed elbows with were other "holiday makers." The "FCC" thing was all for show. And showy it was.

Part of me feels "white" guilt over staying in luxurious places on our vacation. Yesterday morning as we made our way across town in the triple digit heat to finish buying trinkets and such for friends and family, we walked past the Angkor Children's Hospital and I peaked inside the gate and witnessed the day long wait. Women and children sitting outside in the Big Heat on concrete chairs waiting to be seen by practitioners. It's the only place in the region which offers immunizations. My source told me people travel as far as Battenbang (about 100km) to see a pediatrician. We were told the hospital receives enough vaccine to immunize 100 children a day and people come before dawn to be seen hoping to be seen. The very idea of sitting in the heat after riding on a bus all night long with a toddler and a baby exhausted me. The heat exhausted me as it was and all I was doing was messing around buying scarves and spices and had a swimming pool and a cold beer waiting for me.

It was easy for me to sit on that hotel balcony and ruminate over what could be done to help the people in the country deal with their horrendous trash problems, water problems, public health issues. Sure, they burned the paper trash but their ditches were filled with plastic products, most of which appeared to be empty beverage bottles. Thankfully they weren't burning the plastic bottles. But why haven't large waste management companies started working with the government to organize recycling services in the provinces? This would eliminate the trash filled ditches, not to mention the jobs and the materials the recycled plastic could provide. So easy for me to sit back and fix it; my ethnocentricism really started to show. It's also easy to forget this country's democracy is only fifteen years old. That last night as we checked in with security, the guard was a bit bored and it wasn't very busy so he was chatting with us. He asked us what we thought of the Khmer people, did they smile, were they helpful and friendly? We gave him a hearty yes to all his questions. I think a traveler in the US would fall over dead if a TSA agent asked such questions. Our national assumption is we are the best brightest, bravest, richest and strongest country on the planet so we don't feel like we have to work a little longer and try a little harder. It's the sort of arrogance I'm hoping I no longer suffer after this eye opening vacation.

(to add to my "guilt" I just met a young nurse from Tennessee who just spent ten days in remote villages teaching hygene and the like...yeah, I need to come back and give back)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


"More Of The Same" This was our assignment for the last four days. I spent four days watching the sky over the Gulf of Thailand, the clouds taking turn forming dragons, apsara dancers, long boats, wats and a few poodles. Funny, how the clouds took on the shape of those things engrained in the culture of the place. Yesterday afternoon, The Girl pointed out a band of clouds near the horizon were the demons and gods churning the sea of milk. I promise, the clouds did at times look like Angkor Wat. My favorite cloud was the dragon being ridden by a Siamese warrior. And no, I haven't been nipping the Mekong Bug Juice. I think we are leaving Cambodia in the nick of time, the rainy season is starting. We had a night long deluge and both of us awakened at the same time, with the same thought: what about the road. There are low parts of the road and low bridges, our journey might be made even more interesting by having to ford standing water. We just made a pit stop about an hour outside of PP (to the north) and it was raining cats, dogs, pigs and water buffalo. Of course, my rain jacket is in my backpack in the luggage hold. But the bus driver almost pulled under the restaurant patio so we didn't get wet. TG finally ate a bug, brave thing that she is. The cricket she sampled was sweet. It was courtesy of the cutest kid, about 13 who shared his snack with her because she bought an older woman trapped beneath a sleeping toddler some water. I had thought all this spider eating, bug imbibing stuff was for the benefit of the tourists but it isn't: people really do eat the bugs. TG's new friend demonstrated one must pull the wings off the cricket first and then eat it in one big bite. She compared the coating to the sesame flavoring Spider Rolls have. All day, our little world rolled through the countryside, honking at cars, cows and bikes along the way. The ditches around the houses were filling and it's fortunate they are on stilts. I can't imagine what this country looks like in July. I'm almost phobic about muddy water (read the leeches episode in On The Banks Of Plum Creek too many times) so I would be hard pressed to venture in such a country during rainy season. Snakes and leeches and pointy stuff to cut me. I sound like such a pussy. If there had been mud puddles in PP, I wouldn't have left the bench in the waiting area.

PP wasn't as overwhelming today as it was a few days ago. TG ventured into the Russian Market across from the station and bought some local fry. I stayed put and made friends with a Buddhist nun. That is, I shared bread and grins with her. I know we both prayed for the obviously demented old woman begging. The woman approached me and I shook my head several times as she was persistant. Tried to kneel before the Buddhist nun but couldn't and instead bowed three times in prayer while holding her hand out. The nun shook her head and pushed her away. This woman had a handbag with her and despite her thin and frail build she looked cared for. It was also obvious she was lost and probably confused. I felt the hackles on the back of my neck raising--why was she alone, didn't she have family?--when a worried young woman rushed into the station area and gently led the woman away and casting back an apologetic look for the people her mother had begged from.

On the way into PP, I had put away the camera and missed Best Picture Of All Time. We had just entered the outskirts of PP and all the sudden we come to a dead stop in the middle of the road; horns are tooting and honking around us. TG stands up and looks over the tops of the seats: "No one's moving big traffic jam.: Our very game and brave bus driver inches his way to the left and begins to make a turn when suddenly everyone who speaks Khmer (that would be everyone except four of the passengers) are furiously screaming at the bus driver. One woman, obviously from the country with a leathery sun darkened face and an assortment of missing teeth, marches down the aisle and is admonishing (?) the driver, pointing and exclaiming when everyone else joins in and the bus is alive with voices no doubt telling the driver what to do. Usually at home, when there is a problem on public transit, the passengers become quieter so the driver can concentrate. I started to laugh because it was just so hilarious, we had busses and trucks and motor bikes and bicycles in this mass of wheeled vehicles going every which direction when all the sudden an ox cart pulling two stunned farmers is coming toward sthe bus as we were making a left turn. Priceless. Worth the cost of the ticket here. Pulitzer material.

The other priceless shot I missed this morning was one I could have taken but wouldn't have in a million years. We had stopped at a small village outside Snookie and a water buffalo was grazing in a ditch just outside my window. I had my camera raised and was snapping a picture (under exposed, I'm still learning) and had lowered to adjust the settings when I noticed a large group of people coming down the road towards the bus. There were three older adults and a few young women, two had small babies in arms. One young woman, was dressed to the nines, and had a large rice sack with her, no doubt her belongings. She was collecting her things and got on the bus and was seated just behind us. I could hear her calling out to her family and urging her baby to wave at them. I pulled the camera down when I saw each member of her family wiping away tears. She was leaving home. Her sisters wrapped their arms around one another, waving and wiping tears from their cheeks, her father bowed and beamed up at the bus, the babies waved and her mother cried. The young women was excited and knew the boy she was sitting with; he had boarded the stop before. Their conversation was enthusiastic and they laughed at things her baby said. Perhaps this was a wedding trip of some sort for them or they had been visiting their respective villages and were on their way home to PP. He married her despite the fact she had another man's child. Or they had decided it was time to leave home and he spent a few days with his family down the road before leaving home. They were tired of farming and she was promised a factory job and he was going to help in his cousin's garage... I could invent one hundred stories. The sisters were older and had the look of young matrons; soft around the middle but still young, maybe they were crying because they weren't leaving their village, maybe she carried their dreams with them to the big city just down National Highway 4, two hours and one world away from home.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Feelin' Groovy

Friday was the first day of our Beach Holiday. And what a treat it was to lay beside a tranquil and warm body of water for six hours, reading, chatting and swimming. Saturday was more of the same, a few more people joined us so we didn't have the beach to ourselves but had there been a coup or a disaster we would have been in good hands with the United States Navy in port and a few of our sailors were lounging about the beach not creating too much ruckus (so much for the rumors about sailors on shore leave). These days have been a great reward after our treks through temples, battling dust, enthusiastic hard sell vendors and a big bus ride. I can't say the bus trip here was arduous. Arduous would imply we had to get out of the bus to push it across a flooded stream, wait hours for herds of sheep or cows to cross, share our seats with chickens or pervs, defend ourselves against bandits. Like the bus trip in that ridiculous movie from the 80's Romancing The Stone. Nothing so exciting happened on our trip. It was just long and dusty and well...long. But good things come to those who wait and good things they are.

The Girl has mad Google Foo and found our groovy hotel online and managed to book it way way off rack price. Good travel ju-ju that one she has. Our hotel is so groovy that Jackie Kennedy stayed here for five days in 1967. Just a few short years before Kissinger decided to have a snit and bomb the crap out of this beautiful country because the king wouldn't cooperate with him and help attack Vietnam. Because that's how we play: You don't share your toys with you, we are going to just break all of them so no one gets to play. And who can blame KIng Sihanouk. He didn't want a war, he wanted to Par-Tay with the Big Boys and be a movie star or direct films or be an International Man of Mystery. So he built this big hotel and invited Rock Stars and Famous Widows. And they came and they tossed back cocktails and smoked a lot of dope and enjoyed the beautiful warm water just outside their door until we started dropping bombs and then Pol Pot started disappearing all the cool kids and the party ended until 2008 when someone had the cash and good grace to revamp and renew this lovely place.

But hey, a vision is a vision and groovy visions like the Independence Hotel are unstoppable. SihanoukVille is lousy with guest houses and small hotels but has very little to offer the...ahem...more...discerning travelers like me and The Girl who are more than willing to do a ten hour bus trip to hit a beach but prefer a key card over a key, demand a swimming pool and really enjoy fresh towels every day. The history, vibe and a room bigger than our old Crack Shacks is just a bonus. Not only is this place nice it's over the top. Sleek minimalist designs that evoke both the middle of the last century and an Asian Zen quietude. The beautiful private beach is 109 steps down from the hotel lobby. The beach is clean with enough shady palapas, comfortable chairs ands--yesterday--a complete absence of college aged people trying to get laid, recovering from hangovers or working on their next hangover. I've been there and done that and really don't need to watch another generation of young adults act like asshats. I have my own wincingly embarrassing memories to keep me up at night, thanks so much.

Besides the quiet, it's a sexy building made of undulating rooms and curves rather than angles. Thomas Crown would have slept here after breaking the bank in Bangkok, 007 would have totally chilled here after foiling a nefarious threat to the free world. No doubt lolling around the giant pool or soaking up Gulf of Thailand sun with a nubile young woman named after a body part and a food based adjective.

And now I'm chilling here after foiling my sons' nefarious plot to take over my brain and break my bank. But 007 I'm not: the only thing nubile about me is my imagination and my attitude and The Girl is --thankfully--not named Vulva Plenty. Although you have to admit registering in a hotel with a non English speaking concierge would be pretty hilarious, especially if you had to repeat your name several times to help them with the pronunciation.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Wheels On The Bus Go Round and Round

Thursday started for us at dawn when we said good bye to our hosts in Siem Reap and started the The Big Bus Aventure. We clamored on board and noted our fellow travelers weren't old women with chickens for market but bleary-eyed college students. I guess the good news was we weren’t on “the chicken bus” and the bad news is I was spending the day with teenagers. Fortunately, it was early so they were quiet and my guess was they hadn’t been to bed yet or had scant sleep the night before. We wound our way through early morning traffic; I was surprised there was so much traffic before seven in the morning. The bus station was a large parking lot, littered with people waiting for busses to run and vendors selling baguettes and drinks. The bread here is the best bread I’ve ever had. Probably because Siem Reap’s weather reminds me of living in a proofer: Hot and damp but not hot enough to actually bake. We found our bus, loaded our extremely heavy backpacks and The Girl went in search of baguettes and cheese for our journey. I wasn’t really sure what to expect: had the rainy season started to the south and the road under a few inches of water? What would we see? Would the villages be horrible or picturesque? Would I die of boredom on a ten hour bus trip? Most importantly, the bus was leaving late…would we make our connection in Phenon Phen?

The ditches were full in places but the road was dry
Lots of cows.
Absolutely not
Yes and we even waited for a bus later than our own.

We had covered a few miles on National Highway 6 a few days before when we were making our way through the temples. I knew what to expect: small houses on stilts, cows and people working at various tasks along the road. Our bus was comfortable, cool enough without being over air conditioned. The scenary flashed outside my window like a dream at times and a green blur at others. The Khmer pop music playing in the background was the perfect accompaniment for the countryside to unfold and tell a story of a day in Cambodia. A few of the songs were very catchy and at times I felt like we should sway, sing along and perhaps wave lighters in the air as a tribute to the moving lyrics and power ballad cords. Stirring stuff. Too bad I hadn’t a clue what was being sung.

As the landscape rolled past me, I snapped picture after picture trying to capture exactly what it was I was seeing. Sometimes I captured the scene but most of the time I was so close but so far away. The voyeur in me loved watching the lives pass as we made our way through the country: children on their way to school, helping in the fields, men tinkering or planting, Women working in the small garden plots, babies tied to their sides. I watched groups of women sitting in circles, performing small detail oriented tasks, the younger women always turned towards the oldest who sat higher than the rest. Sometimes they looked deep in thought other times they had the easier continence of telling stories or gossiping with one another. The small shops in each village held a clutch of men who were working side by side fixing things or loading trucks. Each village had a small primary school (at the least) and by the time we were out of Siem Reap, morning school had started and the bicycles were neatly parked by the classroom doors. The schools were low slung one story buildings, built around a common area and almost always next door to the village temple which were always the most ornate and largest buildings in the village. The school windows were unfettered by glass with only simple shutters to protect the classrooms from wind and water. I imagined the afternoons in the classrooms were stifling. By ten, you could see kids playing in the common area: boys on one side of the playground and girls on the other. I’m not sure if this was the rule or just the universal way children are until they are teenagers. The games they appeared to play were just like the games our own children play. Some of the schools were in more prosperous villages than others and had real playgrounds with the old fashioned equipment my generation grew up with before it was considered too dangerous to have a merry-go-round and climbing bars.

Many of the villages seemed to specialize in one craft or task. One village had wood and wooden building materials; everything from firewood to furniture. Another specialized in cement and stone masonry. Masons were working on decorative images of Buddha and some of the characters featured in the bas reliefs we had just seen in Angkor: Garuda and Apsara dancers. A few days before we went though a village which specialized in sticky rice cooked in hollowed bamboo shoots. Stand after stand of this special rice was featured on the side of the road. It was amazing the women recouped their outlay on rice and bamboo. But then they probably gathered their own bamboo and grew their own rice. Every available spot of land appeared to have rice growing on it and as we moved further south it seemed like the rains were beginning and the rice fields had become paddies. Rice as it is growing is a surreal shade of green, too.

As the day progressed the microcosmic worlds I witnessed progressed, too. At lunch time, people were gathered sharing a meal; often it was simply a man and a women. One couple were seated close together, heads almost touching, laughing about something together; the intimacy evoked in those few seconds is remarkable to me. It also brought home the idea there is joy to be had even if you are a sustenance farmer in the middle of a developing country. Probably more joy than most of us in the cities know. These homes were without evidence of electricity and I know they don’t have running water. Their lives are uncluttered by the things I take for granted: just now I’m typing on a computer, television playing in the background and Air Con humming to keep the cloying night heat and bugs outside. This is not to say I’m romanticizing living conditions I witnessed. Some of the farms were unspeakably littered with trash and often surrounded by a moat of nasty looking water. By and large the filthiest places were adjacent to larger towns and perhaps the most desperate living conditions I witnessed were outside Phenom Phen. It was in these places the people looked dirty, unhealthy and poorly fed. It puzzles me why this would be the case: the larger towns had health clinics, large schools and a temple or monastery at the center of the activity. Why did those people appear hungry? And when I say dirty, I mean truly unkempt. On the most rudimentary farms, the children had cleanish hair and the women appeared recently bathed and their simple sarong skirts and tee shirts were well cared for. I’m actually very troubled by what I witnessed in PP’s outskirts. The city itself wasn't much better and it was a busy, mad and desultory place.

As we pulled into the bus station the Tuk-Tuk drivers and tax drivers rushed the side of the bus, screaming at us to purchase rides from them, pounding on the sides. It reminded me of pictures I've seen of riots in the Middle East as the mob descends on American military convoys or press convoys. These guys were like piranhas and made the kids at the temples look like Doctor fish. The city was a disorienting experience and I felt so very green and gullible. Like I had just come in from the provinces. I can't even wrap my head around what this city must feel like to someone who has spent their life on one of the farms in the country. It must seem like Hell. I haven’t been overwhelmed by a city since 1984 when I walked up the stairs from Penn Station and into Midtown Manhattan. I was 23 and it was one of the most intimidating moments of my life: I was completely alone in an alien place. This is how I felt in PP. I’m so glad we weren’t staying there or looking for a place to stay because I would have simply withered into a puddle of babbling frightened goo on the side of the street. Changing busses was nerve-wracking on it’s own.

The rest stops were like episodes of Bizarre Food. The Cambodian delicacies offered to us included crickets, worms, freshwater snails and crab (from the rice paddies), deep fried bat on a stick (no, really). I expected to see Andrew Kimmern around the corner snacking on the bat and crabs. The most exotic thing I tried Thursday was sticky rice, banana and a little coconut milk congealed and baked in a banana leaf. It was a little bland but filling and I would eat it again if I could douse it with Khmer ketchup (“Mild Hot Sauce). Just walking through these mini markets was a day’s worth of memories and images.

After leaving the mad crush of Phenom Phen we crept our way up into the mountains. I couldn’t take pictures because the bus we were on was like a school bus and the windows were small and had large bars across them. I’m hoping for a different bus on the way back to Siem Reap next week because the countryside was breathtaking, a cross between Switzerland and Maui. The farms were well tended and clean, the cows were fat and healthy looking. I’m not an outdoorsy person by any stretch of the imagination but this place made me want to strike out on my own, walking stick in hand and climbing the mountains just to witness the views from the top. I wanted to rest in the lush fields and climb the tall trees. Never mind the wild boar, snakes, insects and land mines. There was large monastery in these mountains and just imagining the quiet in such a sacred place gave me a great sense of peace and was a drought for the degradation and frenzy of the capital city.

As we moved closer to our destination, I could feel the anticipation mount in the Khmer people on the bus. They knew we were getting closer and started talking more to one another, excited to be either returning home from the capital or beginning a sea side holiday. Our first glimpses of the Gulf of Thailand were unforgettable: the mountains rising on side and a lovely light blue sea, off in the distance on the other. It was a little gift before we entered Sihanoukville, a miniature version of Phen Phen.

“Snookie” is a beach town and it is geared for “Broads, Booze and Boys”. This place feels ready for action as you enter into the downtown, each side of the main drag flanked with tall spindly guesthouses and open air restaurants. Twenty odd years ago I would have welcomed this scene and been the first off the bus looking for the all night Beach Rave (it’s on Serendipity Beach, in case you ever want to go) and a cold Angkor Beer ready to groove to the pounding music and let my freak flag fly! ‘Snookie is a gritty beach town. Really gritty. Like Atlantic City before the casinos gritty (I’ve seen pictures). Like Progresso Mexico gritty. Ok…maybe not thatgritty. Even after PP and Snookie, Progresso remains the grittiest scariest place I’ve ever spent a night. The third rate carnival that was in town that night just iced the cake which was decorated with disheveled cross dressing boy hustlers who were turning tricks in the “hotel” we were staying. When we told people where we were staying in Snookie if they were at all familiar with the town their unanimous response was: “Why there? It’s really far from everything. Don’t you want to be in the middle of town? Close to the beach bars?” Um…no…because when I look out my window in the morning I want to see this.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Nose To Nose With Buddha And Having Local Fry

Yesterday and today are our "free days" in Siem Reap. We finished our Saturday through Monday three day tour of the temples early Monday afternoon. I think the high point of the Temple Tour was stopping at a Buddhist Temple near Buphuon Temple. The Buddha was one of the largest we had seen and dated from the late 19th Century. That this beautiful statue had survived Pol Pot was miraculous. The elderly women, three nuns and a laywoman, had also managed to survive those terrible years, too. I paid tribute to the Buddha and laid a few dollars where other’s had given offerings. I’m not one of these women who seek out that woo-woo metaphysical Power of Womyn. I think the whole “Goddess Within” movement is, frankly, a bunch of BS and a bastardization of several cultures. But the feminine energy. The Woman Energy I felt at this temple was palpable. After I paid tribute to Buddha: I turned to walk away and one of the nun’s, ancient with Betel stained teeth, grinned widely at me and motioned for me to approach the alter again and she waved The Girl up as well. We both bowed before them and the women gathered around us: bowing, waving incense and chanting joyful sounding sing song verses over us. It was easily one of the most sacred moments I have experienced in many years. When they were finished they tied red yarn bracelets to our right wrists. Our guide told us they offered us prayers of peace, prosperity and joy. I was extremely touched they allowed us, both Western and Christian, to partake in such blessings. I think Tida--our guide--was moved we were interested in doing such a thing. She has a sense of reverence for the stories each temple tells and touches her own spirituality each time she visits. Sharing the temples is something she wants to do and the temples still take Tida’s breath away. I was even more proud of my red yarn bracelet after she told us this.

Tida’s story unfolded over the course of three days and I think she is easily one of the most remarkable women I’ve ever met. Her father had been a physician and lied to the Khmer Rouge: told them he was just an assistant and then refused to go to the “retraining” school (aka The Killing Fields) but would gladly become a farmer. Her elder brother and sister didn’t fare so well. They were professionals and were disappeared when she was very young. We aren’t quite sure how Tida managed but she resisted her mother’s pleas to quit school at 16 and marry like the other girls in her village. Tida managed to make enough money to finish twelve years of school and learn English. She put her self through three years of university and trained to be a licensed guide through UNESCO. She did marry but is divorced with a daughter who lives with her parents, a day’s journey away. Tida has no interest in marrying again: “I can go anywhere and do what I want if I’m not married.” Her next goal is to learn yet another language. I have no doubt she will accomplish this. The Girl and I were amused Tida was a favorite with all the young men working at the Angkor complex. You could hear their hearts speed up when she spoke to them. Our driver Kriss is hopelessly in love with her and watching the two of them was a Rom Com waiting to happen but Tida is not budging so they’ve only met cute and disagree cute and haven’t arrived to the hook up cute place.

It’s a well known fact I like to watch people and there are certainly lots of different people to watch. The children at each temple with their pleas to buy a scarf, cold drink, bracelets, books, flutes, puppets and other what-not are all very sweet and extremely incessant. A few of them try to tug at the old heart strings: “Buy from me so I can go to school. . .” We happened to know school is free when you are eight so this didn’t work with us. I imagine it works with many people. There were so many of them I felt like if I did buy from one of them I would be swarmed and never heard from again, buried under flutes and scarves and puppets and cold bottles of water. So you ran the gauntlet and waved them off with “no thank you’s” and “not today” sorts of replies.

We did have additional guides at the first temple we toured: Beng Mealea, an example of a temple that hasn’t been rebuilt. The young boys greeted us in the center of the temple and led us on a “special” tour, oblivious to our advanced ages and well used knees. But it was worth it, they knew were all the good stuff was: bas relief fragments, tree root sculptures and things our guide hadn’t seen before. All of this was done free of charge: they were just killing time exploring and practicing their English before afternoon school. This was their home, their kingdom and their playground. They could rehearse the history because they had spent so much time hearing the history in several different languages. The oldest boasted he spoke a little German and French as well as English. It was a lovely welcome into the Khmer culture, people who have welcomed us each step of the way.

The other tourists aren’t too dreadful; the usual American Frat Boy hijinks in Pub Street, beautiful young Western women, scantily clad and then upset when they garner leers and catcalls (WTF did they expect?) ; middle-aged folks like us somewhere between cruise ship and intrepid mentality; young families from Australia and certainly NOT America because the tuk-tuks don‘t have care seats and the little precious dears might eat something with dirt on it or have a less than pristine experience. There are a couple of billboards around town reminding people--Western men specifically--if they abuse a child not only will they be arrested in Cambodia but they will be turned over to their home governments. We’ve only seen one blatant example of this sort of “tourist”. He was outside of Bayon and was trying to gain the attention of a young woman: “You really should untie your hair, it’s too beautiful to be hidden.” was his oily, British come on. It made my stomach turn and I will go to my grave kicking myself for not marching up to him and demanding he bugger off or I would alert the officials. I did notice an older woman was hovering close by. But this young woman was obviously uncomfortable. Later, at the temple, while I was being blessed I prayed for forgiveness and protection for the girls Sir Perv was coming in contact with. And yeah, I confess I later whispered a beggy evil prayer that I would see him again and step on his toe or spit on him because I’m not quite to the level of Buddha and Jesus and don’t walk the path of peace when it comes to people exploiting other human beings.

Fortunately we haven’t exploited our gastrointestinal systems with the "local fry". Yet. Buddha knows I’ve tried: iced tea, iced coffee and every flavor of amok available from the dodgiest of market stalls to Air Con luxurious restaurants. But the best food we’ve had was at this restaurant outside the last temple we toured. Of course I don’t remember the name of it and can’t find the picture of the menu but trust me it was an Anthony Bourdain meal: interesting but straightforward “Local Fry” made especially for us by a woman and her two eldest daughters while the younger girls played quietly and tormented their baby brother. Ahhh the international language of siblings. Nice to know in a place so foreign to me some things remain same-same.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Oxens and Tuk Tuks and Monks? Oh My!

The night air was heavy, diesel scented and most welcome after being inside for almost 24 hours. Our close connection went seamlessly in Seoul and the five hour flight was easy except I was sick of being on airplanes and ready to Be There. Siem Reap’s airport is tiny but extremely efficient or at least seems so since this is the shoulder season and there were four Westerners on the plane. The other passengers were locals returning home and relief workers from Korea traveling to do an annual assignment at the orphanage just outside of town. It was extremely dark, no moon or stars and we tripped our way down the stairs onto the tarmac where the locals all just sort of mingled and stopped for a smoke (!) and a chat before going inside to clear customs, no one was terribly pressed to go inside so their was an air of a cocktail party dwindling down as the last guests are leaving. It was all so terribly relaxed, no one was barking at us to stay in single file and forget about taking a bathroom break because in the Land of the Free and the Brave once you return to home soil you are guilty until proven innocent. Not here, I could have wandered off to the side and bushwhacked my way to the highway. I fought this urge and stood in line to have my visa verified and my passport stamped. There weren’t any heavily armed members of the military (a la Los Angeles) and the scanner missed my 3 oz tube of red chili paste which was not in a plastic bag but rather randomly and accidentally tucked in a crevice of my backpack which resembled a clown car with it’s three days worth of clothing and toiletries. It was nice to be innocent before proven guilty.

Our driver--Kriss--was waiting outside for us and while we had a hard time finding him, he didn’t miss us: how could he? We were the only Western women on the plane. I liked him immediately and has a dry sense of humor which we caught a glimpse of as he told the story of his only trip in an airplane: an old Russian prop jet with faulty landing gear flown from here to the mountains in the NW. And again as we wound our way through a dark jungle on rutted roads to the hotel when he asked: “Where did you hear about this place?” I know we are going to be in good hands because he made sure we would be safe before leaving, checking the hotel and the men in the reception area before leaving and as we were winding around on the dirt roads in the dark he told us it wouldn’t be safe to walk after dark. (OMG, do you think? More likely you run into an oxen than a bad guy but still…DARK…Jungle…)

The hotel is exactly how it was presented on the website. The only things they left out were the lucky geckos and standoffish owner. Laurent. French. Even I can do the math on this one. Our breakfast is included and one thing I’ve learned is sometimes this isn’t a big thing. Our breakfast is a big thing. I had the most wonderful croissants: bite sized morsels of buttery goodness dipped in a delightful honey that tasted like flowers.

The Girl didn’t sleep well last night, I slept like the dead and awakened at my usual time. She is a good sport and a hearty soul so she got up with me and after breakfast we wandered around the hotel grounds and down the road. I met the oxen who lived down the road. One smaller oxen was very curious about me and started creeping towards me. I was very surprised to say the least. She was already a few feet behind the others and fell even further behind, thinking it would be a good idea to meet the tourist. I pulled the camera up to my face to snap a picture and with that she stopped in her tracks, long enough to take note her companions were getting further away so she took off running. Like a small child who has been dawdling behind the others and races to catch up before anyone notices she is missing. After the herd went through, a Buddhist monk walked by carrying a bronze vessel. I didn’t take a picture of him because it felt disrespectful and besides that he glared at me. I’m not sure if Buddha would have glared at me but this guy did. I’m thinking not all of the young men who are committed by their families to join a monastery for a couple of years are terribly thrilled with the idea.

It’s terribly hot but we knew this would be the case when we booked the trip last December. But really, it’s not any more hot than SE Texas in August. And we have air conditioning. But seriously? I have sweat like I sweat this morning in many years. Every inch of my body was glowing. One of the shop girls had on a pair of black jeans and a long sleeved cotton turtle neck. I was melting just looking at her. The people in the market and on the streets will speak to you and ask you to look at their things or if you need a ride but it isn’t anything as annoying as the young men in Mexico or Turkey who promise you the sun, moon and stars while exclaiming I am the most beautiful woman they have seen all day! Yeah, whatever buddy.

I even bargained a little. I hate bargaining. It makes me feel like a miserly sort who doesn’t want to pay her fair share. But the bargaining is expected so I played along and ended up getting most of the gifts I wanted to take back with me plus a couple of things for myself.

After shopping we took ourselves to a spa I had read about for a “detoxifying facial”. It was a great way to spend an hour but the treatment was so much more than a facial. At one point, the technician, with her super human hands, had me sit up on the edge of the table and stood--on the table--behind me, her knees on either side of my spine as she pulled by shoulders back. It sounds brutal but it felt amazing.

The highlight of the day was our Eight Dollar tour of Siem Reap from Mr. Sony’s tuk-tuk. He took us all over the place, past the New Market where the locals buy their food and provisions, near the very posh hotels and country club and along the river where the people live in shacks suspended over the dreadfully polluted water, At times it felt like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride but it was at a slow speed and the tuk tuk drivers, kids on motor bikes and trucks all seemed able to read one another’s minds and we didn’t see a single near miss.

Tomorrow is our first day exploring the temple complex.
The Girl is going to eat bugs.
I’m going to let flesh eating fish nibble at the dead skin on my feet.

Good times. Good times.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

On The Road With Ellie Mae

My inner Hick was showing this morning, She always rears her tow-headed close set eye self in big cities I’ve never lived. The place I live has a bit of a sprawl to it but nothing like Los Angeles. We broke through the clouds and there were rooftops and roads which seemed endless. When ever I fly into a city thinking about how many people each large building houses overwhelms me and makes me realize how small I really am. LAX is one of the few airports in the middle of a large city which adds to my disorientation when I first arrive after having been in the lovely blue void above the earth, having had nothing to see except brown, green yellow patchwork or in this case the ruffled edges of the canyons and desert. This morning I awakened just in time to see the Grand Canyon. I’ve only been to see it once when I was about five and have flown over it several times. Flying above the desert beyond the canyon and into California is peaceful. The topography is varied in ways you can only see from the air and aren’t aware of when you are in the middle of it. I think the art created by the wind shifting the sand is best appreciated from above. That the city of angels was covered in morning clouds added to the abruptness of the change in scene. The weather this morning in Southern California was more like a balmy day in San Francisco; a little humid and coolish. My favorite type. We didn’t have enough time to leave the airport and venture to Hermosa Beach like I had hoped but we had a leisurely lunch and I explored Tom Bradley International Terminal: slack-jawed, with an Ellie Mae Clampett dialogue running through my head.

Oh the places you could go from that airport! Taipei! Dubai! Tel Aviv! Frankfurt! Mexico City! Santiago! It was all so marvelous to think of such places tied together by one--relatively--small place. We were watching the people in line: Israelis speaking Hebrew which sounds beautiful even it‘s a list of the day‘s errands and marketing; , beautiful Middle-Eastern women dressed impeccably in Western dresses (I wondered if they would veil once they arrived in Dubai) , large Asian families as varied in dress as any family at an airport in the Midwest. The Girl astutely noted how the six degrees of separation could probably be played with any number of the quell waiting to go through security. I loved hearing the assortment of languages around me. I remembered the first time that happened to me.

Years ago, my sister lived in Los Angeles, on a hill overlooking the Pacific ocean that featured Catalina
\\Island on clear days. It was breathtaking even for a 13 year old who worked nonstop to hide Ellie Mae under a veneer of distain and disinterest. When it was time to return home, I remember being in awe of the people in the airport. My world was pretty limited to Upper Middle Class White Folks. So seeing Africans and Asians was heady stuff. The day I left LA, my flight was late or we were early and had extra time so we walked to the international area and wandered around the terminal watching the people. I remember it was the first time I had seen a woman in a sari and I thought it was the most elegant thing I had ever seen: a silk evening gown you just wore like a skirt and a blouse. I still sigh a tiny sigh when I see a woman in a sari.

Now I’m seated in Business Class, having just finished my Bi-Bim-Bab that came with a tube of Hot Red Pepper Paste , freeze dried anchovies and boiled pumpkin. Having never had traditional Korean food (outside of BBQ) it was a very good meal. I’m sure the well seasoned road warriors out of Seoul find the food just terrible and say things like we say: “Oh God why do they bother at all!” I passed on the tube of hot pepper paste and the only reason I don’t have a picture of my Bi-Bim-Bab brochure is I can’t figure out a delicate way to actually photograph it. “Lookit lookit, it’s got a pitcher of my food on it. Dang, we ain’t in Colarada no more are we, Girl! Hooo doggies!”

We didn’t book our trip in Business Class and I’m not sure how it happened but what a rare treat. I’m thinking it’s paybacks for the last few days at home. The last night reached a crescendo when I got a call asking if I had a very sweet white dog named Kipper.

Kipper was supposed to be next door. He was three blocks away and when we picked him up, he was terribly proud he had ran so far and wasn’t coughing and panting. My guess is he slept all day today; fresh and tired from his own adventure.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Jelly Side Down

the cute head Pocket Toast Pal was found here

If I do say so myself, I believe I deserve this vacation. Between The Girl breaking her arm last week; my own really nasty sinus infection; The Beav confessing, after six months of the rest of us playing “where’s Wally’s bike”, he sold it (without permission) and then racked up $300 in extra text messaging charges; and Wally’s adventures at the bank I ‘m pretty well done. Stick a fork in me and call me toast. I asked my Spare Girl--a single mom with probably the most spirited teenagers on the planet--if it was August yet because this summer is shaping up to be…um…challenging to say the least.

So here I am sick, whiney and pitiful. Good thing I’m alone. Because I’m not sure I even want to be in my own company. The jelly topping on the toast is today I found out I didn’t get the job I was asked to apply for. It was a good job and a good fit. I cried after I talked to the nursing recruiter and later my boss had the grace to ask me if I was going to be alright with this decision because the important thing is “you are happy in what you do.“ I will never forget that gift. Yes, some days are harder than most but everyday is an adventure and everyday I learn something new either about the human body, psyche or myself. It doesn’t get any better than that. Unless you count I get to work with a great team of nurses.

And Beav asked how he can pay me back the money. (window washing and garage cleaning plus moving the lady next door)
And Wally appeared to really listen when I told him for the third or fourth time how to balance a checkbook. But that’s a moot point because he no longer has a bank account to jack up. (he is into me large and will also be washing windows, cleaning garages and moving the lady door.
And in less than twenty-four hours I leave my life for a couple of weeks and see how the other half lives.

The lower half that is.

My guess is witnessing physical poverty unlike anything I’ve ever seen will cure my poverty of gratitude and faith. And if it doesn’t, I’m guessing this guy will kick my ass. In the spirit of love. Just like Christ would.

Next stop Siem Reap. I’m the one with my mouth hanging open in awe and wonder over the bas reliefs.