Friday, September 26, 2014

Things I have learned.

Here are things I have learned that might help fellow (future) travelers. Fair warning, I'm no journalist. These most certainly are opinions. More to come.

1. No one wears sunglasses
Seriously, no one ever, ever wears sunglasses of any kind. Ever. In Siem Reap, I may have seen two or three people with them, but they obviously were tourists, and of course they were sporting the biggest, douchiest aviator glasses money can buy. It was strange at first. With the sun seemingly always beating down and the roads being super dusty, why wouldn't everyone have sunglasses? Many wear masks already while driving. Two reasons, one being my own hypothesis: sunglasses make it much too dark. Roads, as I've mentioned, are crazy here and require your full attention. The world is much brighter here, from the colors people wear to the houses to everything, and sunglasses would dim that to an unsafe level. Oftentimes in the states, I take my sunglasses off while driving because it seems more dangerous than beneficial. But I got a much more intelligent answer when I asked my new bar hopping friend Rattamah (pictured), who works at my guesthouse, the reason why this is. He says that people here associate sunglasses with movie stars. People here, he says, will laugh at you if you wear them. They don't look at them as protecting your eyes from the sun. They look at them as a ridiculous status symbol. Interesting, right? Correct? I have no idea.

(Edit - Another hypothesis: It could also be that the average salary per year for a person here is $750 and every dollar must be spent efficiently and carefully).

2. Street food is seriously the best
Oh, if only Linda from the travel clinic could see me now! She would scold me for days regarding all the bad worms and sicknesses I'm risking by buying from street vendors. Yes, some stands are much more questionable than others. Others though, are utter goldmines: cheap, good food, with plenty of local flavor. That and you're directly supporting the citizens. Win-win. I haven't gotten sick yet (I'm sure it's only a matter of time, but I like to think I'm invincible) and this is just another reason why all those travel websites are overly paranoid and wrong, written by scared people who don't use common sense. If you're reading this and you travel to a foreign country, get out of your comfort zone and try the local street food. And on that note...

3. You must eat all the strange food you can
Do it. No regrets.
Balut outside the egg. Yum.............

My expression as I emptied out the egg onto my plate. 
Despite my look in the picture, this WAS AMAZING. Seriously, it was really good. Nothing like it looked. Well worth trying. Be adventurous.

4. Cambodia gets a bad rap
Two boats on the riverside in Phnom Penh
It's no secret that I love this place. A lot. More than I ever thought I would. What's really tough is reading all the negative things spewed about this country. Here's a blog I stumbled upon on recently:
I actually hate that I'm linking to him and giving him even a single cent of ad revenue (just please don't click on any ads on his site!). This guy made my blood boil. In fact, I haven't been this angry reading something someone wrote in a long while. To have someone so hateful and mean use the power of words to break down cultures like this is sad. Here, read this paragraph from that page:

"Staying true to my purpose, I’m saying it like it is without beating about the bush or taming it down to sound politically correct. To me, sharing full truth is more important than bleeps of the sheep. If you’re heading for South East Asia, bring an MP3 player along and if your baggage space allows, pack up a big set of headphones capable of cancelling outside noises. Actually, pack a few of each as if your itinerary takes you outside of Singapore and Brunei, your MP3 player will soon be stolen off you. It’s never about whether, it’s about when. Sooner or later it’ll be gone and trust me, you don’t want to be among pigs without one."

And people read and follow this guy! Yes, there are negatives about this country, like EVERY country in the world. But while it's good to have constructive criticism, it's much healthier to look at all of what a country has going for it instead. Cambodia has beautiful, caring, and proud citizens. It has a rich musical culture that is making a comeback after being close to being eliminated during the genocide (the KR specifically killed artists or anyone with a creative gene in their body). Cambodia has amazing food and nightlife and temples. They have ancient traditions that haven't been commercialized like the West has done with Easter and Christmas. Their commitment to family should be a model the West could learn a thing or two about. Again, of course there is a lot of negative things to say about this country, but it's much too counterproductive to simply list the bad things about a place. Too often in life, we focus on the negatives and never praise and build upon the positives.

For example, RIGHT after that last sentence, I ended up in a 45 minute conversation with some random couple in this coffee shop. Just a nice exchange of cultural advice, it was great. I can't imagine that happening in the US, as it happens to me every few hours here. I know I wrote about the scammer in my last entry, but again, scammers are everywhere, and the other 99.9% of the population have a heart of gold. Lesson: Don't let others (travel agents, guides, online blogs, and even friends) give you an opinion about a country before you go. Decide for yourself. Find out how amazing a country is without all the noise you hear on the internet.

5. Lizards may or may not get in your bed while you sleep
Try not to let it scare you too much. It will happen.

6. Internet is cheap
For all you United States readers: Capitalism is not good when monopoly's control everything. Because of powerful companies like Comcast, we have some of the highest internet costs in the world yet some of the worst speeds (30th in the world). Even in Cambodia, it's not hard to find families who don't have access to clean drinking water but have internet speeds and smart phone cell service at ridiculously low prices. Here are two great, short articles worth your time: 
(Edit - This will only get worse if Comcast and Co. win against the FCC and get "fast-lane" internet)

7. Bars are where it's at
Dance fever at a popular night club
You'll most certainly meet people at tourist spots, but they're a different sort of people. They're usually the ones who drop into a country, see the "good" spots, sleep in their hotel, and take the plane home after the weekend. I'm not saying that's a bad thing (it most certainly is not), but it's just what it is. At the bars is where you find the most interesting people from CEOs to software engineers to guys who have stories about escaping the Congo when it all went to genocidal hell. Sure, there is the occasional person or two that give you the chills, but even they have a story to tell. Granted, as many reading this surely know, I love bars and pubs in the US. I study, read, and socialize at bars. But in the US, we seem to associate bars with drunks and debauchery. But outside the US, the bars are where the world happens and converses. Lesson: go to more bars.

8. Let go
Do the opposite of what people tell you is safe and smart (edit - to a certain extent, of course. Like the man I met last night who was high on meth and going to the gun range to shoot a bazooka at a pumpkin? That, my friends, is maybe letting go a little too much...). Trust me on this. 

Let go of that white toilet paper.

9. Say hello to everyone and do your best to learn the language
This goes hand-in-hand with number 7. Say hello to everyone! And if they aren't natives, ask them "So, what brings you to _______?" You'll meet the most interesting people life has to offer this way. Also, try to learn some basics of the local language. It goes a long way in communication and it makes everything smoother as you'll get a lot more respect when you try to learn a language instead of insisting they know your foreign tongue instead.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Scammers gonna scam.

Well, it happened. Almost.
Getting scammed, that is. I trust pretty much everyone, bound to happen sooner or later, right?
The boardwalk a few blocks from my current guesthouse
I was walking along boardwalk, enjoying the fading sun and the hundreds of families walking about (right now, it's one of the largest Cambodian holidays of the year, Pchum Ben Day, so most of the businesses are closed and a lot of people have left the city and are visiting their families. A lot of the Khmer I have met are traveling insane distances to see their families and celebrate their ancestors).
So this friendly guy from Bali, Jan, comes up and says in near perfect English, "Hey man, I really like your shirt."
Of course, I say something along the lines of "Oh, thank you."
In my head, I'm thinking: wow, what a super nice dude!
Kind of reminds me all that times at Borders when I'd have a customer hit on me, and I'd just think it was a really, really friendly woman.
Totally oblivious. Like usual.
"Where'd you get it?" Jan asks.
"Somewhere in the States, don't know where exactly."
"Ah, the States? My sister is going to school there! Next month! Where in the States?"
"Washington State. Seattle area."
"That's where she's going!" Jan exclaims.
Very convenient, right?
And so we talk for quite a while, he seems pretty legitimate, and we exchange Cambodian phone numbers and decide to meet tomorrow for lunch. I walk away really happy. Always a good feeling to meet new friends. That night he texts me to go the bar, but I'm exhausted and tell him I'd only go if it was in walking distance from the boardwalk. He declines, as he wants to go to a far away bar.

Next morning, I'm all ready to go and I casually mention to my hostel owner, Edvin, how great and easy it is to meet people.
"Oh, did he like your shirt?" Edvin asks.
"Well, yeah, of course he did! It was a nice shirt." I get defensive. "If I was wearing it right now, Edvin, you'd like it, too!"
And he then proceeds to play out the whole conversation, almost word for word. And it hits me: damn, fell for it. The next step was to go to his house and play rigged cards apparently. I've found countless internet threads of all the bad things that could have happened. He's called me about 10 times this morning alone and sent texts demanding where I am.

But, scams are everywhere. I've fell for quite a few of them in the states (magazine drive guys, anyone? Anyone?). I'm not the smartest person. In fact, far from it. I've been scammed before and I'm sure to be scammed many a times to come.

But I have learned one thing.
Shirt compliments.
Just say no.

(For the record though, it was an awfully nice shirt)

Friday, September 19, 2014

An Average Day in Phnom Penh

Here's a typical day in Phnom Penh for me.

I wake up anytime from 8 to 9. I have a room next to the street, so it all depends on how loud it gets. Most days, I'm awoken by food carts blaring a song that sounds almost exactly like Keyboard Cat. As I happen to adore that YouTube gift-to-the-world, there is no way I can get angry with them for waking me from my beauty sleep.

That's a great tune to start the day with.

I walk to a nearby (well, about a mile away) coffee shop. It's a nice walk and at this time, the city is firing on all cylinders. Tuk-tuks line each side of the street and I get waved and hollered at every few steps. I've been here a little while now, so some wave and greet me with "Ah, it's the Walking American. Always walking!" I dart through the open-air market because it's already pushing past 90 degrees with the sun. The market is wild. Live chickens squawk about, exotic fish I've never seen before squirm in flatbed containers, and the smell of fresh (and not so fresh) poultry and fruit hang like a fog (durians are everywhere and they are as powerful and EVIL as ever). There are people and motorcycles and bikes and machines that can't be described in words and old and young people and the rhythm and the flow of the crowd is a run-on sentence so erratic and long and insane that it's quite honestly an adventure in itself navigating this eclectic maze. The 100's of umbrellas that poke out from the stands and guard against the sun and the torrential downpours are much too low for my height. I walk like Quasimodo, exit, and make it to the coffee shop in one single piece. I'm already sweating like I have just finished a marathon, and I bless the A/C once again. Best invention ever.

I've found this a great place to write, so I'm here for quite a long time. The shop is high up, and sitting outside (underneath an army of fans), gives a great view of the riverside and a long strip of boardwalk. In the early mornings/afternoons like this, I can hear Buddhist chants echoing off the river from the other side. It's magnificent and hauntingly beautiful.

I usually end up somewhere cool and/or massively touristy by this time. Either it's a Japanese super-mall called Aeon Mall or...actually, let me pause here. I went and saw Into the Storm the other day at said mall. It's an absolutely horrendous movie. It's a Twister clone, minus Bill "Game Over Man!" Paxton and plus that Freddie kid from iCarly. The thing is, when I saw it at this 4D movie theater (the first US location opened in June in LA, but apparently they are huge everywhere else in the world), this disaster (of a) movie was suddenly amazing. Oscar-winning even! The seats vibrate and crash side to side and forwards and backwards during action scenes or car chases! There are strobe lights with every lightning strike! Water shoots out when it rains! And get this: the heavenly seats even inject the air with a breakfast smell when the characters are eating their bacon and eggs! That. Is. Amazing. It's cheesy and great and I think everyone should experience this once in their life. If you don't live near one, take a road trip there. Do it. I watched the whole movie with a (admittedly, probably a little creepy) smile plastered across my face.

Or I go to a tourist trap. Or a museum. Or, as mundane as it sounds, sometimes I just go shopping at the local market. Since this is long-term travel, I'm doing my best not to rush things. I'm taking it all in.

Off to lunch somewhere cool and different each day. Sometimes I hit up the same restaurant down the street, where they are doing their best to teach me Khmer...but I'm a horrible student and forget the moment I walk out of the restaurant. Side-note: this is a dangerous time of the day, because beer is sometimes (always) cheaper than water (.50 cent beer and buy one get one free deals. Oh man...) and it's hard not to overindulge. The day thus splits into two options.

a) I take full advantage of this great deal and thus crash on my bed for the rest of the afternoon. This is exactly my response during and after taking this option.

b) I am responsible (what this actually means though is that I only take a little advantage of this fantastic price).

Lounging around. Usually doing my laundry in my sink. Or reading at the waterfront. Very exciting. Unless, I choose option b above. Then this time frame is full of regret.

Watching Cambodia's "2nd most popular band" Cambodia Space Project
Dinner, then off bar hopping (much thanks Tom for being my insanely great guide here). This is easily one of the best parts of the day. I meet a ton of new friends this way from everywhere around the world. I see cool bands play in tiny venues. I get destroyed at pool. I eat great food in fancy, and not so fancy, places. And hopefully I get back before a decent time. I never do.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

"So, why are you here?"

Inspiration is a strange thing. Sometimes, it's as powerful as a jackhammer in the back of your skull. It's relentless and all-powering and consuming and ravenous. It's terrifyingly awesome. To be inspired, in any avenue in life, is arguably one of the best feelings in the entire world.

That being said, inspiration is a fickle beast (reminds me of Ben from LOST stating that "destiny, John, is a fickle bitch"). It can come and go when it pleases and sometimes when it flees, it feels utterly impossible to snatch back.

Ever feel like that? One second, you're inspired to change the world, write that Great American Novel, start that business venture, and start up that band that you've been scribbling out cool logos for on a napkin during that board meeting. Whatever it may be that sparks that inspiration to do something amazing, the real hard-hitting question becomes: what is it that makes that inspiration go away?

Now, I've been a writer for a while. But, no, that's not exactly correct. I may be, in theory, a writer. I've written a book, I've published a thing or two here and there, and I do little things like writing in this rather simple, ego-boosting blog. And, of course, I've certainly done my homework on all things writing--I'm absolutely obsessed about reading and learning the craft. But really, that's all just logistics. I've never personally felt like a proper writer. Why? Well, maybe it's because I've always worked in arms-reach of the medium, so close to it being my main job, but never quite having the ability to be able to reach over that divide. By working at Borders for all those years, I was able to grow and learn and be with my writer heroes--what I could call the Bradbury's of my life. I've always wanted to become my heroes, follow in their larger-than-life footsteps. I haven't even remotely done so, but I've been thankful that I've gotten as close as I have for as long as I did.

But as much as I love selling and reading and learning all that I can about the world around me from the written word, I don't want to be on the sidelines any more. I want to be in the game.

And, yes, social work has been great and I am certainly going to make a great one when I get back to the States (Man, I don't even want to think about how in the world I'm going to afford paying off my loans on a social worker salary...). But, and this sounds stupid and conceded and etc., etc., etc., but I know that I'm bigger--meant for more--than simply a degree and a 9-5 job someplace. I feel like I'm meant for gigantic (monstrously gigantic) things that combine writing and social work and ridiculously optimistic, ambitious, impossible dreams. I've been given the gift to be able to write and empathize and work with people. And I need to start being the people I've always looked up.

I've already met some amazing people during this trip so far. Actually, wonderful and INSPIRING people is a better, essential description. Some I've only met for a few scant minutes, others for hours over many drinks, and others for a few adventurous days or more. Just being around these people has brought new inspiration into my life and my passions. These are people that are paid writers, (journalists with fire and passion and curiosity in their eyes), working for NGOs (I've been invited to do an informal meet-and-greet/interview with those who run a refugee support center later this week, thanks in full to a wonderful connection at the Royal University here, and I can't wait to share what they're doing with you all), and/or making a difference in the world. These people are writers. These people are world-shakers. These people are behind the words I looked up to for so long. In short, these people are the people that I want to be.

At times, I feel like this journey, this adventure into the unknown, is greatly self indulgent. I mean, what exactly am I learning here? What's the purpose of meeting new people, drinking with journalists and engineers and NGO owners and entrepreneurs and swashbuckling adventurers, and visiting tourist traps and plantations and poverty stricken countries?

I don't have the answer to any of those questions. Or maybe I do, because these new encounters are shaping a different me, an inspired me. You ever meet someone who inspires you? I have and am. I feel the pounding in my brain again, that uncontrollable hum of a million neurons firing, colliding, and exploding (well, uh, that imagery goes a little too far, because that would probably mean a hemorrhage or something).

I am a writer. I am a social worker. I am a traveler of the world. I'm meeting amazing people who do amazing things (hopefully some of you I've met are reading this right now. Know that you're inspiring). And I'm being exposed to things I've never knew existed outside my tiny American bubble.

This is my Motorcycle Diaries moment.

So, again, why am I here?

I'm here to write.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

One by one by one.

This entry has certainly been a challenge to write and edit, because it has simply been one of the hardest things I've ever written. I said I was going to be an observer and apolitical while abroad. But I simply can't. And to be quite honest, I simply won't. Here's why.

(Note: This isn't like my last entry. You'll find no jokes here. I wanted to make sure that this entry holds back no punches. Most of the following will be hard to stomach, difficult, political, and NOT FUN to read, and will make your blood boil, and for that I'm sorry, but if you're sick to your stomach--blood steaming and scolding--and angry and sad by the end of reading this, then that's good, that's exactly how I hope you will feel).

(Second note: if you're reading this on a cellphone, the format will be strange. I apologize about this).

From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 1-3 million people were murdered in Cambodia by an extreme communist regime called The Khmer Rouge (KR). This regime toppled the government and arrested and executed almost everyone suspected of being connected with the former government or with foreign governments. Then they went for the civilians. They spared little (for example, of more than 2,500+ monks in eight monasteries, only 70 were left by 1979). Much like any genocidal government, the KR wanted to create an ideal society and enacted policies that relocated citizens from cities, had them tortured and imprisoned (the picture to right is one the "nicer" cells), carried out mass executions, created forced labor, and killed 1/4 of the entire population of the country. They wanted to, in their words, "wipe the slate clean" and up to 20,000 mass graves, known as the Killing Fields, have been uncovered since then.

Today, I took a trip to one of these "killing fields" (one out of an estimated 300 in the country during that time) and it is exactly what it sounds like. Like the Holocaust, citizen were rounded up because they didn't fit the government-in-power's criteria for those that should survive. Most people who ended up here were also tortured (sometimes for months and months on end) until they either broke and admitted they worked for the CIA/KGB (which they did not, the KR wanted to create some "reason" why they should be slaughtered) or didn't and were outright killed. They were brought to this field, being told they were being located to "new homes". Unfortunately, this was far from the truth. Almost every single person brought here never survived past a single night. They would come, get herded like cattle and systematically killed. A nearby tree held speakers that blared revolutionary music so as to drown out the screams.

And, today, I stood in front of a mass grave that was specifically made for over a 100 mothers and children. Almost all of them had their heads taken off. In addition, they were beaten to death on the tree nearby (pictured). Or had their heads bashed in by farming tools. Or had their throats slit by sharp tree branches.
If they killed someone in your family, more than likely they'd then kill the entire family in regards to fear of revenge. One by one by one.

They then threw you in a ditch, a mass grave. Sometimes, the people/children they threw in were still holding on to life. With a two birds with one stone mentality, the KR sprayed DEET over these still-alive human beings in order to kill them fully and also to mask the smell of rotting bodies. At first, only 30 people came every two weeks or so to be executed for made-up crimes. By around 1978, it was sometimes 300 people a day arriving.

On this sweltering hot afternoon in the middle of Cambodia's rainy season, the waters have brought new bone and cloth to the surface, protruding from the dirt.

If this sounds absolutely like the worst thing you've ever heard, it's because it is.

I felt anger that this went on for so long because 1st world countries at the time (such as the US, Australia, the UK, etc.) did little to nothing to help and acknowledged the top brass of the KR as the legitimate heads of state! Pol Pot and his horrible band of leaders continued to have the privilege of a seat in the UN, even for years after the KR were uprooted. This would get too long winded if we added in all the dynamics (Cambodian bombings, Vietnam War, etc.), so I'll leave it at that. It took almost 20 years before a formal trial was considered and only as recent as LAST MONTH have 2 more of the leaders finally been convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity.

But I have also felt utter amazement that these people are so amazingly resilient. Almost everyone (including my tuk-tuk driver who lost his brother and father) I've talked to lost someone in their family during these 4 years, yet they haven't let bitterness take over. They are some of the most giving, happiest, generous, people I have ever met. They have done their best to rebuild their country despite this unspeakable setback. Mix that in with incredible poverty, and it's amazing they are still standing. But they are. They continue to fight for a living while being ever so humble.

I almost didn't want to type this entry. There's nothing funny to be said here. No way to water it down. But this story needs to be told as many times as possible. It needs to be recognized. We always say that these kind of events remind us what not to ever do in the future. But time and time and time again, this story of genocide repeats (and is repeating right now in multiple countries even as I type this).

And, sadly, it will happen again and again and again.

But, no, wait, scratch that. I don't actually believe any of that. It's much too cynical and I don't have the heart to ever fully believe we are that far lost. Maybe genocides can be stopped. Maybe there is hope. But first, we must acknowledge a well-intentioned but incorrect fact as myth: It's not enough to simply know that these kind of tragedies happened and are happening. Knowledge is power, sure, but knowledge without application is and always will be useless except to maybe answer some Jeopardy questions.

Too often, I hear things like "America isn't the world's watchdog/world police" or "We have to fix our own problems at home first" or (my personal favorite, ugh) "Let them fight it out themselves/It's not our problem". Really? I mean, really? The people that believe these kind of things have beds to sleep in, families to love, jobs to go to, and a life that isn't comprised of watching your family die one by one, or forced into a prison cell that is a 5 x 10 box simply because you had "soft" hands or could speak more than one language (either of these two things would have had you, and your entire family, slaughtered during the KR regime). To think we can't or won't help is the kind of thinking that is poisonous and inhumane and elitist. Yes, we have problems in the United States that need to be fixed. A lot of them. But if we sit ideally by why babies are getting their throats slit by the hundreds of thousands, something is very wrong here.

Here's a fitting metaphor:
Imagine the world like our local neighborhood. The United States is our house, next door are those crazy Canadians, and each and every house represents another country on this Earth. What we have become is a nation that has not only locked our doors, but dead-bolted them, barricaded them, and we order everything straight to our door from Amazon so we don't have to walk out to our driveway. We have become an isolationist country in regards to aid, but seem totally fine with importing Apple products made in tiny, low-paying warehouses (again, only if it's delivered straight to our door!). Many of us, I would sure hope, that if we heard screams down the street, would do something about it (call 911, grab that shotgun from the closet, etc.) instead of simply going to sleep muttering, "not my problem." Right?

So, I write this entry so that maybe a few reading will do some research, maybe read a bit about this chapter in our shared collective life on this Earth, and tell others. Most of all, I hope, when it happens again, we all do our part to do something about it.

We may live in a somewhat broken democracy, but at least we have a voice. We have power if we accept and utilize it. There is always hope and we are never powerless. There is always a way to fight, no matter how small the pebble in the pond may feel. Every voice, every fist raised, and every comment (social media can be a good thing) given makes a difference (a good example of this is the current FCC battle in the United States that is being fought with simple internet comments!)

Next time you see even a snippet of something like this on the news, or your Twitter feed, please don't ignore it. Share it, tell your neighbor, write to your congressmen and congresswomen. We are not the world police, I agree, but we also cannot be idle in times when unbelievable human suffering is unchecked. We all live this life together and I sure hope we never fully forget this.


Suggested Readings/Viewings:
-First They Killed My Father
(I remember seeing this in Borders when it first came out. It was a title that never left me. Unfortunately, it took years before I finally read it. It's a rough read, but worth your time.

-The Killing Field
(1984 movie that is pretty interesting, I saw this a movie theater in town that plays it every single day).

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Riding in Cars with Cambodians

So, I needed to get to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, and there were pretty much only three options to get there: by bus (the cheapest method at $11), plane (super expensive, soaring past $100 one way), or boat (wrong season apparently).

I chose the bus.

You ever look death in the eyes? You ever laugh and weep at it all at once?
You have? Have you been on a Cambodian road, too?

Starting Out.

It started out fine, just 11 people (plus the driver) in a pretty spacious van that had air conditioning (thank you God!). The minute we started driving though, it all went downhill and fast. Because the moment we took off, everyone, and I mean pretty much everyone, fell instantly into a Sleeping Beauty style coma-sleep, slumped heads and drool (yep, drool) all around me. Before we got on, the three young Cambodian natives in front of me were all applying this strange spray on their skin that smelled like rubbing alcohol and mint had an ugly and regrettable holiday together. Was that the cause of their sudden sleep or was this bus pushing some kind of sleeping agent through the A/C vents that Westerners were immune to? Now, it's not weird to sleep on a long ride anywhere, but for these people to sleep during this trip was nothing short of a lift-your-hands-to-the-sky miracle. I don't know how they did it, because my eyes were wide-open and twitching. My fingers still ache, having clawed them into my bunched up knees like a some kind of merciless and sadist vulture.

Have you ever been on a "road" in a foreign country? (Hint: there is no concrete or discernible traffic laws!) Cambodia driving is much like a game of chicken, except playing it with 5+ opponents at once, sometimes the opponents being other buses or bicycles or walking pedestrian--all of them darting away at the very last millisecond. We zoomed past them with a half-a-finger length to spare. I was speechless and continued to grab the handle bar conveniently attached to the back of every seat.

Fifteen Minutes In.

You ever see one of those Flex Buster ads? You know, those weird things you attach to your abdomen and then it vibrates your stomach so much that you end up with killer abs?

Well, the road was so bumpy, so shaky, and so jarring, it felt like I had one of those on every muscle of my body. In fact, I'm pretty sure I have perfect abs, arms, and legs now. 

Thirty Minutes In.

The driver starts playing Cambodian hip-hop.

One Hour In.

"Look Lloyd!  There's some people who want to ride too!"
"Pick 'em up!"

We stop and pick up a random hitchhiker who sits uncomfortably close to me. He backs off after, I'm sure, getting a little freaked out that I'm scratching all over from sunburns and am giving heavy prayer under my breath. In fact, they say your life flashes before your eyes before you die. Being on a Cambodian "highway" serves up a near death experience with every swerve and every pass.

Two Hours In.

The hitchhiker next to me has three cellphones. At one point, he is talking on two at the same time, one pressed to each ear. He probably takes about 30 calls the entire trip. I don't know why, but I'm a little worried.

My legs are jelly. As though they have been attached to a rogue Footsie Wootsie from the Puyallup Fair of my youth and someone put in a 1,000 quarters. My head is that scrambled egg from the 90's "This Is Your Brain On Drugs" anti-drug campaign.

Four Hours In.

I have now reviewed my entire life. Asked for every sin's forgiveness. If need be, I'm ready to go.

Five Hours In.

It is now dark and it's a lot easier to let go of my putty knees. In fact, night time is great! Every near miss and brush with death is completely unnoticeable! It's like someone put a cute kitten mask over Death's face and it's been automatically downgraded to simply a minor threat now. But the bumps are oh so much more worse. Am I river rafting again? Each touchdown of my butt to the seat sends a shock wave through me and I clench my teeth.

Sixish Hours In.

We are safe, I met a new friend (if you're reading this Louisa, please tell me the secret of being able to sleep on these things!), and you know was kinda fun after all is said and done.

I think I'm ready to do that again (but first, I might go show off these killer new muscles at the lobby bar).

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Why You Should Walk Drunk Through a Foreign City, Part I

So, tonight I continued to drink long after my new friend I met at the Angkor National Museum (which strangely is actually owned by a Thailand-based company...) left. I walked, uh, well, stumbled back to my hotel (no tuk-tuks since I had no idea how to give them directions back) lightly smashed. It was quite honestly the smartest thing I could have done on this trip so far.

Which is weird to say, you know? Even weirder to give it as advice. Go, get drunk, and stumble through an unknown foreign city! And so, tonight I did everything opposite of what everyone and every website told me not to do. This includes, but is not limited to, drinking alone until plastered and walking down odd side-streets after dark. Full disclosure: I have been living abroad for a full week now, and I have still felt completely and utterly out of place and scared. Of what you may ask? Of everything. Before I left, everybody made me terrified of everything. The travel clinic made every disease a jack-in-the-box just waiting around every corner and every food stand, the travel websites warned me that I'd get robbed and mugged and stabbed and sold on the black market, and the books made it seem like the minute the sun went down all hell broke loose, as though everyone outside of the US were fucking wallet-snatching, passport-stealing, vampires. But here's the thing, all of that is completely wrong. Being drunk and wandering around in the dark made it so I had to, essentially, let go (and as you may or may not know, I've always believed that life is all about learning how and when to let go). Granted, letting go of anything, especially a prime instinct such as fear, is extremely difficulty, even for a moment. And that's where alcohol can (sometimes) help. I sauntered down the streets because my inebriated brain did not care (speaking of which, probably going to be a lot of errors in this blog that'll I'll have to come back and fix). And by the time I was halfway through my walk, I realized that all those fears were unrealistic and false. The world, while still a scary place, is not as bad as some would have you believe. Yes, I could have been mugged and so forth, but living in fear of the what-ifs is a sad, horrible way to live. Also, I'm pretty sure all the people and places that emphasized all the scary bits were unknowingly over-generalizing (interesting article on this here). For the first time since I left, I was able to withstand the stares (and yes, since I'm a little out of the main hub of the city, everyone stares at the tall, white guy) and for once realize that it wasn't a big deal. I, too, have stared and perhaps giggled at foreign tourists with their big cameras and complete lack of direction. Once I realized that it was okay to be the outsider, that it was okay to be lost and confused and curious, everything changed. I wasn't scared anymore (well, to a point. Still scared of those organ-destroying, pore-wiggling-through worms that the travel clinic told me about).

It was also at this time, drunk and wondering where my hotel was after walking down the 20th wrong street, that I finally was able to take in the poverty. Yesterday, I had the chance to go out to a farm outside the city and see some of the worse poverty in the world, and for that matter, gain knowledge that it could even be that rough. To be completely and utterly honest, being sober, it was all too much. It was too serious and real and rough to take in at once. I was going to write a whole blog about it, but I have yet to find the right words to describe how devastating it was to see and experience (I helped out on said farm and met some of the friendliest, nicest, smartest [they fixed our broken down jeep better than any mechanic in the states] people I have ever had the chance to meet, yet people who had little more than an extremely dilapidated studio-sized shack and hammock. Or worse, a tarp and nothing else. Sorry, I have no pictures of any of this, because I couldn't bring myself to take any, my smartphone burning and weighing heavier than ever in my pocket). Stumbling down the road past a billion tiny broken down stands, I was able to fully acknowledge my complete respect for this country, a respect absolutely beaming with admiration. These people don't have the luxury to be middle class because poverty is the norm. Not only do they struggle with poverty, this is also a country still actively rebuilding after a brutal genocide. Your heart goes out to these people, and it wasn't until my walk that I really admired their strength and noticed something crucial. Now, I am a bleeding heart social worker and I will unflinchingly fight tooth and nail for social programs and am squarely in the middle of politics (though certainly leaning more toward the democratic side of things). But I will say this, the poor in Cambodia (read: almost everyone) work harder than anyone I know, hands-down, for the life they have. Whether it be selling gasoline out of empty coke bottles on some side street, or taping "For Sale" books on all sides of their wheelchairs, the people here fight for a living. They never stop giving up. They find any way possible to fight for survival and, again, I admire that greatly. No free-hand outs. No free anything.

That being said, help is needed. Social services and nonprofits are needed. While the US continues to cut social services, thinking they are a "waste" and "a free hand-out" (which they are not), Cambodia is in desperate need of any service that can give a helping hand. I admire them for their survival, but sadly, the glass ceiling is ever so low here, and without some kind of governmental or NGO aid/intervention, most of these people and their kin will never escape this endless generational poverty.

But I'll stop here for now. I have a lot more to say about poverty and Cambodia, and about poverty in general but I think I'll dive into the topic a little at a time. And if you don't want to read and learn about poverty, its effects, and its prevalence, then perhaps this blog isn't for you. Sorry, but the topic of poverty sort of reminds me of a Daily Show I saw a few weeks back that had Jon Stewart responding to those people (when I say those people, I mean those who religiously follow Fox News and who's narrow view of life actually scares the living hell out of me, no joke) who believe we talk about racism too much. As Jon Stewart eloquently puts it: "You're tired of hearing about it? Imagine how fucking exhausting it is living it." (link is here, well worth your time to watch). I feel it's like that with the issue of poverty. You might be tired of hearing about it, but it's real and there even if you don't personally experience it. So, sorry if I sound like a broken record/tape/insert-your-era's-format-here, but it's a topic I'm sure I'll come back to a lot). 

But this post is about being drunk and taking it all in. In fact, it's about letting myself take it in. Of letting myself not be scared to feel sad and angry and hopeful through all this. That's what this trip is all about, right?

Tomorrow I leave this town and head to Phnom Pehn. And tomorrow, I'll wake up sober and be thankful for a drunk walk home. I titled this post as Part I, because, well, I'm sure they'll be more nights like these. Nights where I throw (most) advice to the wind. Nights where I let my guard down. And nights where I hope to God I can find my way back to my bed before I pass out.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Temples! And (light) philosophy ramblings!

I've specifically avoided writing these past few days because I fear from all that I've seen and heard and done in such a short time, that it may be quite impossible to do it justice in words and pretty pictures. I mean, how exactly does one describe getting in their first motorcycle accident on the way to a Christian church next to an alligator farm? Even stranger, what if I don't have the words to describe what it's like to wake up to a strange child crawling underneath the floorboards of my room? How can I describe how majestic Angkor Wat is but also at the same time try to avoid making someone sick when I give mention to the gallons of sweat that poured, no, exploded and LEAKED from every pore of my body when the humidity soared past 95% and little old, Washington-weathered me, tried hist best to climb to the top of some crazy tall towers without suffering from heat stroke? And finally, on a much more serious note, how do I describe what I see and experience, past the fun Facebook photos (which only show the fun! and exciting! times and certainly none of the "bad") and the picturesque adventurer life and the 50 cent beers (think foreign Pabst. Ugh, but come on, how can you pass up 50 cent beer?), in a country that has such poverty that is crushing, prevalent, and strangely enduring all at the same time without diving into pages and pages of rants about failing systems and why I am sometimes ashamed to be a white, privileged, sheltered American?

Well, I guess the best I can do is try, right? Good, because you dear reader, are going to get all that and more. You might agree, you might not, but I hope you keep an open mind, because I do my best to do it as well.

So first off, let's talk temples, alright (at least for this post)? Everyone loves temples! Granted, the majority of us probably have a cultural, political, and religious understanding of monuments gleaned pretty much from either Tomb Raider or Temple Run or Indiana Jones (I know I did). Mr. Small, still as kind as ever, took me on his personal tuk-tuk tour and man, was it more than I could have ever hoped for and more.

The reason I chose Siem Reap first on my trip is very simple: I love temples and climbing things and anything really, really ancient. Also, no surprise, I'm pretty fascinated by religions. First Hindu, then Buddhist temples with a mysterious past that is part history and part myth? Count me in. But I'm not going to bore you with facts about Angkor Wat and the surrounding monuments. That's what Wikipedia is for. What I want to try to do is explain the feeling you get when you touch something, when you climb something, when you feel apart of something that is ancient and old and holy (edit - total lie! I begin to ramble in exactly three sentences). You suddenly feel very small and you realize the scope of the world and how each one of us is such a small part of the story. It's surreal to imagine what the conversations were like more than a thousand years ago in the places I stood. 

Quick side-story (edit - yep, here we go. Sorry).
While climbing through Ta Phrom, I came upon a rather dark four way crossing. In the middle of the crossing, was a rather dilapidated Buddha statue, the top of his head shining ever so slightly from a purposelessly made hole in the roof, I guess today's equivalent of a sunroof. Besides this statue, sat a women who quite honestly looked older than the ruins I was in. She was murmuring something indecipherable. Next to her, another tourist, was bowed in prayer before the statue. I came closer and the woman handed me a lit incense stick. I thanked her and paused.

"Uh, so, now what?" I wanted to ask.

I certainly don't worship Buddha and have no need to pray to him. But when in Rome Siem Reap, right? So I put my incense in the little ashtray thing and got on my knees. I sent off a little prayer to no one in particular and got back up. The woman motioned me closer before I could take off and wrapped a red bracelet around my wrist. And then, and only then, is when I choked up and tears started to form. Which is crazy, because the temples, as awe-inspiring as they were, never did that. Though they should have because they were as majestic and as sexy as they were in my dreams and in the movies. The temples themselves made me think and wonder and imagine, but this tiny band given by this frail woman made me not only think, but it made me feel.

This woman, older than dirt, is here everyday, doing the same thing, everyday, for God/Buddha knows how many years, because she believes in it with her entire heart.

I thought to myself: do I have anything in my life that I'm that passionate about? Do I have something so important that I would drop everything in my life to follow it/her/them?

The answer is: I do, I just haven't gotten the courage to do it.

And it got me thinking even more, not just about passion and commitment to a belief system, but passion and commitment to anything in life. Sometimes, I spread myself so thin that I don't give anything its due attention (binge watching some horrible show on Netflix/Amazon Prime does not count). When have I ever given enough time to the things that matter most in my life? Isn't that what were supposed to be doing with our time anyways?

So, short answer to what the temples and this woman taught me: Patience. Passion. And commitment. Also, more bluntly, that I need to stop half-assing things in my life. Be it relationships to learning French to finishing that almost-done novel just chilling and taunting me on my home computer.

I need to be more like this woman. I need to be more more like these temples.

As one of my favorite essays explains, I need to keep "thinking like a mountain."

Or rather, in this instance, a temple.

But, I digress. Back to temples!

Go see them. Sweat like I did. Climb as many steps as well.
And, please, don't forget to grab that bracelet from that woman.
She'll still be there when you get here.
I don't know much, but I can promise you that much.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Through the Looking Glass/International Dateline

Today is my first full day in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Already, I feel like a different person. Is that possible even? In one day's time to feel radically different? It's a completely different world. The moment I stepped off the plane, and felt that crazy hot humidity hit me, I knew I was in for the ride of a lifetime. Actually, scratch that. This may sound dumb, but the moment that hit me the most was on a plane from Guangzhou to Siem Reap. Maybe it's only crazy to me, but they served green oranges. GREEN ORANGES! It's dumb and I should know better the reason why it had an outer green layer, but for some reason, I was dumbfounded by it. I was going into a world that was so different that even their oranges weren't orange!

At the airport, I hired a tuk-tuk driver named Mr. Small, who, besides from having a really badass name, has been one of the kindest people I've ever met. He's been my personal driver for the last two days and he'll remain so until I leave. He and I have had some pretty fascinating conversations about life and poverty and the world at large.

(Oh, and the poverty. I'll leave that for another blog down the line because it's much too large a topic to cover right now. And, blood running thick and pumped by a social worker's heart, I'm going to have a lot of future blogs cover the topics of poverty and privilege)
I met a fellow from Thailand, a 44-year old musician named Justin, who has taken me around town to some of his favorite spots. Really cool dude and is the exact kind of adventurer you imagine encountering on an adventure like this. I love it.

I've been staying at a homestay, Channa's Angkor Homestay, which essentially means I'm staying with a family (a couple and their three kids), who have a spare room to rent. It's been the best way to start this whole adventure. Last night, we all had dinner, during a lightning storm, while Justin played guitar and the eldest daughter grilled me about American life. She's a year older than Noel, and it's funny to see that even halfway across the world, 10-year-olds are naturally curious little creatures.

But, this is all general talk. You want to hear the meat of the travels! You want to see the pictures and hear the crazy stories. For example, something like this has not happened!). You want more! Well, that will have to wait until I get to proper internet, so for right now I'll leave everything sorta vague. My plan and goal is to update this twice a week with pictures, in-depth stories, rantings, videos, and so forth.

Also. Dear. God. The. Humidity. Is. Punishing.