Thursday, January 20, 2011

Resilient Siem Reap


“Hey lady, ten postcards one dollar!”

I look down as I walk and sure enough Molly is still following me.

“You see,” she declares proudly, shuffling through the souvenirs. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. You buy from me!”

Molly is four years old. She’s wearing a red bandanna tied around her wavy black hair, a long white tee shirt, and nothing else. For a moment, I pretend she doesn’t exist. After all, it’s easier that way.

You see, my Cambodia is the land of endless rice paddies, Angkor Wat, noodle soup, and the delightful bamboo railway. Looking down at Molly forces me to acknowledge another Cambodia, her Cambodia: welcome to the country of land mines, genocide, child slaves, and extreme poverty and desperation.

“You buy from me!”

I shake my head, smiling softly.

No Molly, I think to myself. What I will do is take you home, where ever that is, put on your shoes, if you have any, drop you off at school, if you even attend one, and pray for a better life for you. One not consumed with begging and pain and poverty.

I don’t do any of those things though. Instead, I kneel down and fix her bandanna that has untied on the side of her head.

“Where did you learn to count so well?”

Molly drops the postcards into her basket, and her smiles widens.

“Sally.”
 
I wonder, who is Sally? I wonder if Molly was taught to count to 10 just so she could stand outside Angkor Wat, a temple that has endured genocide, civil war, and hundreds of years of life on this tumultuous planet, just so she could beg for one dollar.

“Well, you are a very smart girl,” I say, my brain and heart trying to reconcile the disparity in this world between the have and have nots.

Molly smiles again but suddenly it falters.

“You no buy from me?” she asks, chewing on her lip.

For a fleeting moment, I toy with the idea that she’s been taught how to pout but I dismiss the thought at once. No, written clear across Molly’s face is genuine, child like despair. At four years old, Molly understands all too well that money means food in her belly, clothes on her back, and a roof over her head. Studying Molly, in her disheveled state, I cannot tell who told her to stand outside this temple and beg. I pray that it was her family, and that thought makes me sick. But, it’s so much better than the alternative.

“I’ll tell you what though,” I say, lifting her chin to look into her face. “Why don’t we get two ice cream cones?”

It settles my churning stomach that ice cream causes Molly to forget all about her job. She skips over to the booth with me and chows down happily on her strawberry ice cream bar. For a few moments today, she can be a four year old child.

“Bye bye,” Molly says as she runs to the garbage can, her basket in hand, to prey on two Japanese tourists.

“Bye bye!” I yell at her retreating form, but she doesn’t even turn around.



I try to enjoy To Keo, one of many temples littered around Siem Reap, but my mind won’t move beyond Molly. I’ve grappled with personal responsibility countless times since coming to Asia. How can we spend our money so it helps locals? How do we avoid the seedy underbelly of these developing nations?

Frankly, anyone with their eyes wide open will have a hard time allowing themselves to enjoy Cambodia. It feels innately wrong to derive pleasure from visiting a country where so many of its citizens live in desperation. But I didn’t come to Cambodia to enjoy it. I didn’t come here so I could sew a Cambodian flag on my backpack and say, “I’ve been there.“

I came for a reality check.

And I got one.

Shivers run down my spine as I listen to an elderly woman explain to me how her father was ripped from their home in the middle of the night, tied to a tree in their backyard, and bludgeoned to death.

“Do you want me to show you?” she asks, indicating with her hands.

I shake my head.

I can’t even stomach the thought.

This isn’t a movie, this isn’t make believe; this is her life, her memory, her reality.

“Why?” is all I can say.

“He was too outspoken.”

She doesn’t look sad. It takes me a minute to place her expression: stoic resignation. She’s come to terms with the fact that 30 years ago, a crazed man killed nearly 20 percent of the population while trying to create a peasant society. Grounds for execution were wearing glasses, being educated, or speaking a foreign language.



My legs are jello as we walk away from the cafe. It had been her family's home but after Phnom Pehn was emptied, its inhabitants forced to march to the country side to work the fields, she was the only one to return.

Many homes remained abandoned because entire families had been wiped out and there was simply no one left to return home. Most of these dwellings had been converted to cafes or shops. Some had plaques commemorating those who had lived there and lost their lives.

I watch as a European tourist walks up to a plaque along side a ceramic store and makes a goofy face for the camera. All I can think is she has missed the point entirely. How can one stand in a spot where lives were torn apart in such an evil way and feel nothing at all?

I find myself paranoid as I continue my walk across the river; every where I look I see people with missing limbs, children begging, and impossibly young Cambodian women and girls with older European and American men. I’m overwhelmed to the point I don’t leave our room for a whole day.

During that day, I read The Children of the Killing Fields and find courage to face the outside world again. Cambodians are resilient people; they lived through civil war, genocide, mass starvation, and then rebuilt their world. Sure, some darkness persists: when walking through the border, signs plead foreigners to respect children. It’s not an easy reality to face, but it demands respect. I figure the best way I can respect their strength is to come face to face with it. So, with that in mind, I head down to the river to people watch.

Poised on the bench, what I see is a hard reality to accept but one I came to witness nonetheless.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Weightless Bokeo



Gravity let go of me.

Soaring above the jungle, the world around me is silent except for the constant zzzzzzzz of metal scraping against metal.

It’s a sound of liberation.

For 30 seconds, I am weightless.

For 30 seconds, I defy nature and fly.

It ends too quickly.

From the safety of the tree-top platform, I look out over the Bokeo Nature Reserve. The canopy is solid. Branches sway from side to side as wildlife commute through the dense jungle. From far off, I can hear the cry of a bird. I keep my eyes peeled for a Gibbon, a primate on the brink of extinction. China has logged much of Laos but the Bokeo Nature Reserve is protected land where large cats, elephants, monkeys, birds and other creatures can roam safely.

The torrent of sweet, warm air rushing past my face as I swing from tree to tree dries the sweat from off my face. Laos is miserably hot and it's not even the dry season yet. I try to imagine the jungle parched but cannot fathom it; everything is moist and vibrantly green due to the swelling rivers, teaming lakes, and short but powerful rain storms.

There is something special about this hole-in-the-wall country. Surrounded by China to the north, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south, and Thailand to the west, one expects little in the way of backpacking hot spots but there in Laos lies the appeal. South East Asia has been open for backpackers for thirty years. It's absurd to see someone riding an elephant in Chiang Mai, Thailand holding a Starbucks coffee. The world is shrinking but Laos remains Laos.



 
 

Mountains shred the landscapes, rivers snake through villages, and oxen roam the busiest roads. Something in the water causes my pulse to slow and my blood pressure to drop. Perhaps it's because I can't compare my life with the one before my eyes; locals grow their own food, build their homes from local materials, and spend their day working a trade: cooking, building, creating. They move slowly as though they have nowhere important to be.

In mountain villages, backpackers go to local homes for meals. There are no menus nor signs indicating a business. That's because it's not a business for these people. It's a lifestyle. One family cooks and others come. It's an expectation. People matter. They are the only things that matter.

Sean and I sit on the ground with our two European friends Emily and Dave. Plates of rice, chicken, and vegetables are spread out around us. Cups of tangy tea are drained and then refilled by our gracious host, an elderly Loatain woman who sits with us. We cannot communicate verbally with one another. Four languages are spoken around this table but we don't need to speak to understand one another.

We sit in silent contentment and compainship. The jungle is a cocophony of sounds, and our evening soundtrack rings in twilight; above all, the river roars nearby. Occasional snippits of creaking branches sound like an uneven drum beat. The tempo is moderated by the ever present cry of birds. It's a beautiful melody.

If I could choose one place to stay, it would be Laos. The beauty of the land and people and lifestyle are simply intoxicating. It's Laotains' simple lives. It’s their clear values: people matter. Not money. Not stuff. Not time. And above all, it's the experience of being in a country that has not quite managed to join the modern world.

Over a quiet cup of tea in comfortable company, it’s easy to feel deeply rooted satisfaction.

I could stay here forever.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Chaotic Bangkok



I look around and contemplate this new hurdle: the Bangkok train station bathroom. Women clog the one alley way that runs in between the stalls. I am the only white person around. This is an automatic problem. Thai people are extremely gracious hosts except for when it comes time to queue for anything. They move to ticket booths in a stampede and the same rule applies for waiting in line for the bathroom.

One must engage in a contact sport to secure a stall. I am next in line. In fact, I have been next in line for the past minute. That doesn’t stop women from shoving me aside and barging into the next available stall. Finally, I make a choice. I must be just as aggressive. So I am. I hear the creak of a lock and know that a door is about to open. I step forward at the same time an elderly Thai woman does; she’s cut her way from the toilet paper vendor all the way to the front of the stampede. I refuse to let her win this game. I’ve been on a bus for 13 hours, all the way from Krabi to Bangkok. I have earned the right to use this hole in the ground. As the door swings open and its occupant steps out, I shoulder the old woman aside and wedge my foot in the door.

My bladder sighs in relief.

I have won.

I feel a twinge of guilt as I look back while locking the door; the old woman wears a long green dress, flip flops, and has a handful of tissue paper. Her gray hair is balding and fluffy. Her face is wrinkled. For a moment, when I look at her I see my grandma. Guilt eats away at me; I should have let her use the stall. At the very least, I shouldn’t have elbowed her out of my way. In an instant, however, my guilt vanishes because when my eyes reach her face I see a hint of pride. Her kind smile says it all: the white girl has finally figured it out.

Oh Bangkok, how you confound me.

You’re loud. You’re crowded. You’re smelly. You’re a comparison of wealth and poverty lined up side by side. You’re…

Different.

I look down and see the ever familiar hole on the ground. I will never be used to this procedure. Being in Asia forces me to value things I never did in America. I never was grateful for clean drinking water running from my kitchen sink, the plethora of toilet paper stocked up in my closet, or the bountiful selection of cheese at my local grocery store. I had never been without these items so I never realized how much I appreciated them.

Asia is my teacher and the lesson is the difference between want and need, charity and greed, and above all awareness. I knew when I returned home, I would throw away my Anthropologie catalog, cancel Netflix, and use my car less often. I would instead seek out experiences with Sean, my unwavering partner in crime, and live a life not focused on things. Asia was proof people could live happier lives with fewer things cluttering their hearts with desire and greed and want and dissatisfaction.

Stepping out of the stall, I weave my way through the congregation of Thai women and see a long legged, blond haired girl hesitantly trying to navigate her way through this cultural experience. She’s a novice. She waits, perched on the side of the crowd hoping to secure herself a stall.

“You’re gonna have to jump in there,” I say as I walk past her, and she just nods her head.

It’s funny how going to the bathroom can become a marathon effort. Before I got on the plane, I tried to imagine the things that would be difficult for me to deal with in Asia. I thought the food would be too spicy, the language too complex, and the touting too forceful. None of those things turned out to be true. Sure, a green pepper seared the top of my mouth once but those could be easily avoided. And yes, Thai people look at me funny when I tried to say hello and goodbye in their native tongue. And don’t even get me started on the tuk tuk drivers. But, when all is said and done, things like going to the bathroom cause me much more grief than any of those other experiences combined.

It was due to this expectation that certain things should be easy. In America, all one has to do in order to take care of business is walk into a McDonalds. In Bangkok, first you have to locate a public restroom. They are few and far between. Then, you have to pay. But don't forget some toilet paper. The unsuspecting traveler thinks there will be some in the bathroom. What a fool. Then, one has to bully his or her way into a stall fighting with the other people who also need to go. Then, well, one has to readjust everything one knows about how to go potty. It’s exhausting because one expects it to be so simple.

And regardless of any future hurdles I face while moving through these confounding countries, from something as simple as going to the bathroom to something as painful as addressing the horrors of the Killing Fields, they will be worth it because I will leave with a better understanding of how to be a global citizen.

So as I slide into the chair next to Sean and take a sip of his Thai ice coffee, I watch the chaos around me and feel immensely grateful to be a part of it even just for a few hours.



Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Emerald Krabi



“Jackie!”

My ears perked up and I stopped walking through the hordes of people swarming around me.

Smiling at human nature, I shrugged. Who on earth would be calling for me at a random night market in Krabi Town? Everyone I knew was scattered on different continents.

Resuming my quest to find Sean in the sea of people, I walked toward the Strawberry Shake Lady. She had a stand on the outskirt of the night market. Most of the time, she laid her gray haired head on the coolers stacked beside her cart and slept. Twice now we had to shake her leg to wake her. Each time, she grinned widely at us and admired my necklace. This woman was Sean’s newest favorite person and I was likely to find him at her stand in rapture over one of her mouthwatering creations. She was an artist and her medium was fruit, ice, and a blender. She elicited bliss in the same way viewing David, all marble and muscles, did within the walls of the Uffizi.

I brushed more than shoulders with other shoppers as I squeezed through the narrow walk way, often having to wait in a line of ten or more people simply to get by favored vendors selling fried fish, rice noodles, and oddly enough donuts.

“Jackie,” a female voice cried again. “Jackie…wait!”

A hand fell on my shoulder.

Meredith and Mikey stood in front of me, exhilaration lighting both their faces.

My jaw dropped.

We met the married couple in Malaysia almost four weeks earlier. We became instant friends. We survived trekking through the jungle together not to mention multiple rounds of Chang beer, which caused all kinds of misadventures in the mountain village of Tanah Rata.

“What?” I stammered. “How?”

As far as I knew, they were supposed to be in Burma.



“We decided not to go to Burma,” Meredith explained as she gave me a big hug. “We were on a bus and heard someone talking up Krabi so we thought we’d check it out... and here we are! We just got in today.”

I hugged her back, hard. When traveling, one acquires friends quickly or not at all. In secret, Meredith reminded me so much of my ex-sister in law that it almost made me hurt.

“What about you?” Mikey asked as we patted each other’s backs merrily . “Aren’t you supposed to be in Bangkok?”

I laughed. Bangkok: what an absolute nightmare.

“Naw. We took a detour. Besides, by the time our trip is over we will have been to Bangkok six times. I think we can live without it for now.”

“Hey, where’s Sean?”

I looked around.

“That’s what I was just trying to figure out, but I think I have a hunch,” I said, grabbing Meredith’s arm and dragging her through the crowd. It was literally the only way to stay together in the chaos of the night market with its aisles bursting with people, food, and animals.

“Have you guys eaten yet?” Mikey asked, his fingers wrapped tightly around Meredith’s wrist.

“Nope. We split up looking for the best grub.”

“Good. We haven’t either.”

So it was over a dinner of coconut soup, honey glazed chicken, and papaya salad that we caught up; they told us all about Penang and we told them all about Singapore and Indonesia.



“So tomorrow, noon, at the pier,” I said quietly, standing outside their guest house in the pitch black side street. It was midnight and I silently hoped the gate to our guesthouse was unlocked. I knew it would be though; the family we were staying with was considerate to a fault. Each night, the grandmother brewed us a fresh pot of tea and we sat on the porch listening to a concert of crickets.

“We’ll be there,” Meredith said, opening the door quietly. “Sleep well guys.”


Sean and I walked back to our guesthouse silently, holding hands and admiring the moon and stars. We both thought the stars looked brighter in Asia. I was so thankful that while I was overjoyed to see Meredith and Mikey again I was also perfectly content to be with Sean. After six weeks of constant companionship, I was neither sick of him nor eager to be rid of his presence.

The sun was high in the sky when I spotted our friends walking along the water front. In Meredith’s hand, I spied my favorite Thai candy/gum. We weren’t sure which it was but we ate it hoping it was the prior.

Twenty minutes later, we found ourselves plowing through the Andaman Coast’s green water. Pink, purple and red scarves tied proudly to the bow of our long tail boat fluttered in the wind as our captain happily steered the vessel through the soft rolling waves. Tall crags jutted from the ocean, some in peculiar shapes like a chicken or certain male body parts.

The sea spray relieved the scorching heat and soon enough we found ourselves on Ko Phi Phi Don island scrambling through its hidden cave network, soaking up Vitamin D on its sublime white sand beaches and tempting monkeys from trees with plantains and imitations of Curious George.

Feeling wholly happy in the moment, it was easy to forget about everything else we had seen and experienced and simply relish in the beauty of mother nature and friendship.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Lost in Transit



Disclaimer: This list was created on our Worst Travel Day Ever, which entailed an overland journey from Indonesia to Thailand. On New Year's Eve, we left Indonesia at 5a.m. via ferry. We ended up in Kuala Lumpur and got on the wrong bus. We were dropped off in Alor Setar, Malaysia, near a very violent and unstable border crossing with Thailand, at 11:30p.m. with nowhere to stay. Instead of panicking, we wrote down every absurd thing we could possibly think of about our journey through Southeast Asia.

1. Is there a toilet paper shortage we don’t know about? And why is there a garden hose beside the toilet? Do you want me to water your flowers? I’d happily do that in exchange for some t.p.

2. “Hey you, where you go?!” If I wanted you to take me somewhere, I’d let you know. So, why do you follow me around, tapping me on the shoulders exclaiming, “Obama good. Hey, where you go?”

3. $30.00USD? Really? Now, is that rat that scurried out of your “deluxe suite” complimentary or do I have to pay extra for it?

4. Can you explain why the bus picked me up at platform 30 instead of platform 4? Further, do you happen to know why it failed to take me where you said it would? Do you see a problem with the fact that it dropped us off at midnight in a random town? I’m sorry but how is that, “Better. This better.”

5. Why is it always so hot?

6. Are all Thai songs sappy love ballads sung by men in tight pants wearing hot pink lipstick?

7. Hold on a minute. Let me make sure I have this straight: you want me to pay to come into your country and to leave the country. Huh? Indonesia, you don't make sense.

8. I don’t understand why we missed the bus. We followed your instructions to the tee: you said, “Go stand outside 7-11 and look like you want to be picked up.” We did that. So, where did we go wrong?

9. You’re telling me there’s not a single helmet on this island? I see, it’s okay though because when I crash my scooter I’ll knock myself out and, “won’t feel a thing.” Great.

10. So is the garbage truck delayed or is the colorful array of candy wrappers, soda cans and diapers merely decoration?

11. Awe, what cute dogs everywhere. Rabid beasts? Too bad, they’re adorable.

12. “Do you think she understood what vegetarian meant?” I asked. Sean shook his head and extracted a fully intact chicken foot from the noodle soup. “Nope.” Yummy.

13. How is it possible that this mosquito net is a mosquito trap…. and that we’ve become the bait?! It’s a good thing we brought Afterbite to bathe in after waking every morning for a week straight covered in angry, red bumps.

14. “Obama! America! MTV!” the 7-11 clerk shouted excitedly. I looked to Sean, who shrugged. “Yeah… but is this gum or candy?” The man squinted, and then he squealed, “Big Mac!” I shrugged, handed over the 12 Baht and swallowed the mysterious candy hoping it wasn’t gum.

15. Cool…. a mini green bean. Oh wait, nope! That would be the world’s meanest Indonesian green pepper. Who needs feeling in their tongue anyway?

16. What old lady? You think you have to pee more than I do? I don’t think so. I’ve been holding it the whole bus ride. If you try and shove your way into the stall before me, I’ll take you out. You and all your cronies who cut in line and steal my hole in the ground.

17. White, hairy legs everywhere. You Germans are insufferable. Why do you insist on walking around our ten-bunk hostel in your man panties? Do you really have to watch the Chainsaw Massacre two feet away from my head at 2 a.m?

18. Is this actually right: I have to take a bus to the Singapore causeway, go up an escalator, get my passport stamped, go down an escalator, wait for another bus to drive me one minute across the bridge, get off at the Malaysian causeway, go up an escalator, get my passport stamped, and then go down the escalator and wait for another bus to take me another minute to the bus station?! Yeah, that’s right? Man, Singapore & Malaysia, what were you two thinking when you came up with that ridiculous plan?

19. Are you really surprised no one wants to buy spicy chicken wings on the ferry that’s rocking and rolling when half your passengers are barfing and you're blaring Bob Saget & AFV?

20. "Welcome to Cambodia. You buy visa for $50 USD here." Um, do you actually expect me to believe that the shack on the side of the road is the official Cambodian office for obtaining visas? Sorry pal, drop me off at the real border and I'll pay $20 USD for my visa.

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