Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Hash

It's been two weeks, and trying to break the bad habit of comparison. It's drilled into my head now: Cambodia and the states are incredibly, incomparably different and there's no use bringing up these dissimilarities like an incredulous tourist. For example:

"Wow, at home a barefoot five year old girl would NEVER be allowed to ride a bike carrying her naked infant sister in the middle of traffic."

"Isn't it weird that I can bring my can of beer into this nice clean ice cream parlor in the middle of the afternoon?"

"I wouldn't normally think to make sure my hotel didn't have a crocodile farm in the backyard in the states."

"I've always wanted to douse a child in beer, but I would probably get arrested at home."

I didn't state the last one aloud, but who hasn't thought it before? Parents, come on! Fortunately, Cambodians have no qualms accepting all of the above as normal, everyday occurences. Participating in the Angkor Hash Harriers run last Saturday gave me a peep into many abnormalities that both shocked and pleased me.

Apparently, Hash Harriers is an international organization operating these insane events all over the world. Our meetup was just one thousands of meetup occurring regularly around the world. Our group of about 50 was mostly Khmer, and included a group of kids, men dressed inappropriately for a muddy run in work boots and jeans, and a small group of expats like myself. For $5 we got transportation via bus to the "boonies" where we were left in the countryside speckled with ride paddies, water buffalos, huts and rough terrain. After a briefing of the rules-see a water buffalo, stop; don't run on rice, etc, we were off on a mad Hansel-and-Gretel-like hunt for flour marks that denoted whether we were on the right path or had followed a false path.

I ran at the front meaning I logged more miles than the large group of walkers at the back. Moving through thick forest, most everyone emerged bleeding a bit, and after two hours we arrived at the halfway mark: a truck carrying hundreds of beers and soft drinks. Now you know why so many Khmer showed up: unlimited beer and a Japanese buffet at the end.

After a significant monsoon, the latter half was a little more confusing what with drunken Khmer and washed away flour compounding our search. We made it to the end and engaged in a strange, tribal circle tradition in which most of us were shamed into entering the circle while everyone sang lewd songs and forced us to drink beer out of green watering cans. Actually, I drank my beer out of my expensive Nikes, lending them a perma-bread smell.

Why did we douse this sweet child with beer? It's an honor. On his fifth hash, he had woken up early to set the course and now deserved a name. After some deliberation we deemed him "Frog Boy."

I borrowed most of these pictures, and after scanning the truly embarrassing photos of me, I considered leaving myself out of it. But, I'll laugh at myself and admit that this one is probably the best. What?

Friday, June 22, 2012

Animals in Siem Reap....and a picture of me sweating

I stopped by a client's office to grab some pictures of their van running biodiesel and couldn't help snapping their awesome dog

There are animals crawling all over Siem Reap. During the five hour van ride that originally took me from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, I had to keep myself awake somehow to avoid drifting off onto the shoulder of the van's driver or the large Japanese man I was wedged in between on the front bench. What struck me the most was the sight of so many beautiful stray dogs running around countryside roads and hanging out at each rest stop we visited. It's no different here in town. Dogs are everywhere, and they're really, really adorable. We don't get a lot of stray dogs about in New York City or the United States in general: safety laws, humane societies and the police snatch up untagged dogs, perform PSAs about spaying and neutering and amazing rescue agencies run websites that have hogged many internet browsing hours for me.

The story is a bit different here. I've seen pregnant dogs running about, and tragically, a few dead dogs on the street. I shouldn't leave out all the skinny kittens roaming about, either. My perception of stray dogs has changed--if you see a homeless dog on the streets at home, it's likely dirty and unattractive. I keep waxing on about how gorgeous the dogs are here and how I'm sure they could command a decent price at home. I'd take one! After some research, I've learned that there is a problem with diseases here among strays, so I'm happy that some NGOs are working specifically on this issue. I've cautiously held my hand back from petting them, it's not easy!

I volunteered for a day as a "mycologist," stuffing these bags full of mushroom spores to grow. The cat was a my company.

Not one of the wild macaques. He's in rehab at the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity

And wait, there's more. There are monkeys! Biking around the temples in Angkor Wat produces sensory overload: there are striking, ancient works of architectural wonder and..macaques! I nearly crashed my bike into a tuk tuk when I saw my first macaque, the pesky monkeys living in Angkor Wat begging for food from tourists. Tim shrugged them off as an annoyance, "they're not even monkeys. A lot of them can't climb trees anymore." But, they're monkeys! They're really close to me! Apparently, these guys are big troublemakers. In all seriousness, I read a story in the Phnom Penh post just this morning about a police intervention to find an escaped "thief" monkey that caused a serious amount of havoc.

I don't know, I still love monkeys!
At the ACCB...sweating after a surprise hike up to the top of a mountain, wearing a skirt and the wrong shoes!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

One week in Siem Reap

I've technically been here in Siem Reap about ten days, but I'll disqualify the first two nights as a cushy time continuum for travel recovery. After all, my handle on the geography of Siem Reap were non-existent and I could just manage to walk myself down the linear path leading to the main restaurant strip, Pub Street, and back to the hotel. I attempted to check out a new guesthouse on my own, encountered a busy street, and nervously turned back. I've had discussions about how hard it is to cross the street in Egypt and Iran, and I think urban Cambodia might make the list. No one walks here. I know because I've tried to walk and became exasperated by the mocking laughs I received picking around puddles and avoiding moto-bikes. What drove me to get a bike so quickly was the constant harassing tourists--called "borangs" or "frenchies"--get from "tuk-tuk" drivers. Since Siem Reap developed at a breakneck speed in the past ten years, most of the buildings and businesses sprouting up tend to cater to the vibrant tourist community here thanks to the proximity of the nearby Angkor Wat temple complex. As a result, NGOs form a tight weave here, and I could order grilled cheese, pizza, falafel or tiramisu if I wanted. I prefer to stick to the Peace Cafe for lunch where I can sit under the shade of a tree and order a "Yogi Salad," tofu stirfy and a fruit smoothie. It's pricey at the Peace Cafe, though, at $5 for lunch it's well above what I could pay at other spots where a lunch might run $2.25.

Getting a bike opened up a bit of a new world to me here. I laid down $40 for the red single speed which looks snazzy but functions less than passably. Loose brakes can be heard squeaking a quarter of a mile away and the kickstand has a a way of engaging itself every few minutes. Nonetheless, it's nice to have a way to avoid the insistent drivers and to check out new parts of the city. Tim was kind enough to take me on a dusk ride out and around the temples.

At this point, I have spent my time learning the lay of the land, working with Tim, meeting people and looking for long term housing. As much as I enjoy the pool view and free breakfast, I need to head out of the Golden Banana in the next few days.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Victoria Angkor: First 2 nights in Siem Reap

When your boss offers you two free nights in a 5-star resort for your first two nights in town after a long, sticky journey. you should take it. Tim won the stay at a charity pub quiz raffle and thought it seemed silly to stay in town when he had a perfectly good apartment to sleep in. Sure. I've fantasized about a "staycation" in New York before, but luck doesn't have me winning any raffles!

Needless to stay, the Victoria was gorgeous and I felt embarrassed when the wonderful front desk staff pulled my stained, old suitcase into their vintage elevator to head up. Built in the 1930s, the hotel sits in the middle of "Royal Park," a stretch of green gardens dotted with pagodas. The king's palace is in the gardens, so it's his spot whenever he's in town. I asked Tim if it was a big deal when that happened--I've dealt with Obama traffic in LA--and he laughed and said that he was just a figurehead.

It's the height of the "low season" here, leaving the hotel pretty empty, which I enjoyed. I rarely ran into anyone walking around the floors save for tons and tons of geckos both large and small. Both mornings I met Tim for a huge spread of breakfast which ranged from exotic fruit to waffles to sushi and miso soup washed down with as many refills as coffee as I could get. We tried the saltwater pool one evening expecting a refreshing dip in the midst of the heat only to jump into a bath. Sure that they were heating it we brought the issue up to the manager the next morning during breakfast while he sat with us and drank tea. No, it's not heated at all, it's really just that hot.

I walked back and forth down the river those first two nights to head out to dinner on "Pub Street" in touristy downtown. The river path is beautiful but treacherous and I hope to learn how to cross the street in a more effective manner. At night, hundreds of birds screech as they fly out of trees and each "tuk tuk" driver beckons to me on the street as a target for a ride. 

Sad to go, but on to the real world, or, the Golden Banana!

Getting here

Airport coffee, socks, Sinagapore, and a view through wires at my guesthouse in Phnom Penh

I'm playing catch up a bit. Because it's easy, I'll go ahead and blame the delay on jet lag, which seems fine given the unfathomable time it took to get where I am now: Siem Reap. The flight to London was a dream--6 hours of unadulterated sleep punctuated by two meals. I forgot how much they feed you on international flights and my vegetarian food continued to arrive first. I'd let it sit on the tray until everyone else got theirs as I thought "is anyone really hungry enough to eat another trayful of food?" So, I picked at the fruit and always drank the orange juice.

In Heathrow, I entertained myself during the three-hour layover by walking around and noticing all the airport shops that reminded me of my time living in Cambridge a few years ago. Mostly, I felt latent sticker shock after blowing so much money that summer when the Euro to dollar ratio held around 2.5: 1.

Everything hit me in Singapore where I faced a 9 hour layover before a measly hour and a half flight to Cambodia's capitol city, Phnom Penh. After debating internally and walking the huge Changi airport a bit, I made the bold decision to take up a free two-hour tour offered by the airport via bus. I needed to get outside and stretch my swollen legs. Plus, I got to add another gratuitous stamp to my passport.

The short tour circled us around most of downtown Singapore, a clean, modern and tiny country made up of skyscrapers, green lawns and water views. For me, the tour guide made the trip--she was a rousing force who hit on points of personal interest to me, telling us about the banking and manufacturing industry that lined the country's coffers, Singapore's renowned government savings plan leading to mass government housing development for most of the country, and about Singaporean's two main hobbies: shopping and eating. Getting out of the bus, I was slammed by staggering heat and humidity. Fashionable Singaporeans strolled by, unaffected by the weather. We viewed the Merlion (picture above) which was that: a towering statue of a lion spewing water, built primarily to provide a symbol for Singapore's tourism industry. I was happy to drive through Little India, where the thriving Indian community sells flowers andnestles tiny cafes and businesses into several blocks in the city center. I'm glad I made the tour but felt happy to move on to Cambodia. The stark cleanliness of the city compelled me to wonder about the Singapore of the past, before the era of Asian tigers, and the financial bubble. How different did the country look when it was the humble fishing village the guide described?

Made it back to the airport for a quick jump to Cambodia and twelve hours at the Top Banana guesthouse where I enjoyed mediocre red wine, curry and about twelve games of Jenga with a bunch of British backpackers.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Packed and fairly ready to go

Note: I thought this post published about 3-4 days ago, guess not! I'm already in Cambodia, but I figured I'd put it up anyway!

Butterfly on rooftop farm in Queens

Atlantic City

Last American meal, at home

I jumbled my things together this morning for my flight to Cambodia that takes off from JFK tonight at seven PM.  Surprisingly, getting ready for this trip didn’t phase me the same way other trips--a long weekend in Seattle or four days in Jamaica-- did. Two days ago, I beat myself up a bit for leaving some tasks to the last minute: installing huge software files for photo editing, purchasing traveler’s insurance, booking a hotel. I’m confident these minor details, including learning key Khmer phrases, will fall into place.

Before embarking on my three-month journey to Cambodia, I took solace in some pockets of free time in New York City and California. I avoided the subway and opted for long walks and logged some sweaty miles on my bike. Spontaneously ventured to Atlantic City for twenty-four hours. Ate at some favorite restaurants and tried some new ones. Got a behind-the-scenes tour of a commercial rooftop farm in Brooklyn by the farmer herself. Took a quick summer course in food security and lots of yoga. Saw friends. Got a sunburn and peeled.  Turned twenty-five and ate the celebratory gluten-free carrot cake for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a week after.

While at bay now, I’m confident anxiety and uncertainty will find me somewhere-if not on the 30 hour journey to Phnom Penh, maybe while attempting to find a home, learning to edit and produce video, or via my notoriously sensitive stomach. Admittedly, I’ll be learning while doing for most of my time working with Naga Biofuels to document their work getting clean biodiesel to nonprofits, hotels, and dive shops throughout Cambodia. They’ve graciously welcomed me into their venture, and through my fumbling, I’m hoping to help them show their work to the world.

Some critical information:

Working for Naga Biofuels in Siem Reap, Cambodia

No iPhone! Instead, I’ll be using Skype: alisa.ahmadian

Not sure where I’ll be living yet, but I know I’ll be staying at the lovely Golden Banana until I figure it out.