Ich Bin Ein Berliner

What a change it is to be back in a truly Western country! Berlin is a city redefining itself after the fall of the wall back in 1989. Like in Beirut, there are cranes and construction sites everywhere. Between the destruction of so much of the city during WWII and the division of the city in 1961, Berlin has little that has survived from the “olden days”.
It is, though, a thriving place. Because of an international design competition there are architecturally interesting buildings throughout the city which blend well into those that already existed. German people come from all over Germany to visit their new capital city and international visitors flock to see and experience not only the new look but also the myriad of cultural museums and activities.

Arriving at the airport, I was thrilled to meet up with Wiltrud, the first of many friends that I have met on a bicycle trip. Back in 1999, we did our first bike trip in Austria and met Wiltrud and her husband, Lothar. Since then, we have met up on one continent or another and it was way past my turn to come back to Europe. How convenient that Europe is on my way home!

Germany has an amazing infrastructure of public transportation so we were able to use the bus and tram system to get to our hotel in Berlin. Wiltrud is a wonderful tour guide and she had planned out our time for the next few days to see the city starting with a tour on a public bus that passes many of the major sights. As we sat grinning on the top deck of a double decker bus, we caught up with our lives while viewing the city. We passed golden monuments, green parks and canals, buildings old and new from both sides of the wall and hundreds of people. I was especially struck by the height of so many people, obviously well fed and active. It was great to see so many people on bicycles (including the pedal cabs) and special lanes just for bikes. There was even a beer bike with 10 people pedaling through the streets while they sipped their foamy brew.

Off the bus, we explored by foot, walking through huge public squares where so much of history had unfolded. There was the famous Brandenburg gate with its tall columns right near the American embassy, pieces of the Berlin Wall, left as a reminder (and myriads of pieces were also available in any gift shop), an impressive field of simulated grave stones as a monument to the Holocaust and the infamous, Checkpoint Charlie where you can have your picture taken for 2 Euros. We passed the cathedral, an island of museums, the famous radio tower that loomed over East Berlin and an early international clock. Everywhere there were people out enjoying the beautiful spring day including lots of people in beach chairs drinking their German beer alongside the river canal. We shared our dinner in the new Sony center sitting outside where we could watch the people go by. So many people…

In the morning, Wiltrud and I visited the Pergaamonmuseum of ancient art. Similar to the ruins I had seen in Beirut and Istanbul, the newly renovated space was filled with treasures from the east. The highlight of the visit was a multi-storied panorama of Athens. We climbed a tower of many flights of stairs to reach the viewing platform on top. Sounds from the ancient city played as the lights changed from day to night and back again. It made the ruins come alive as life in ancient times was depicted with a combination of photography and painting – very impressive.

From there, we took the underground out to a part of the city where the Berlin Wall has been left standing. With helpful signs and displays, we learned more about life for the Germans whose lives were disrupted for almost 4 decades by this border placed across the city in 1961. There were stories of escape, of families split in two and the hardships of life in the east. I had noticed memorial silhouettes in other places remembering those who had failed in their escape attempts. Since the wall came down, the city has had to figure out how to integrate the lives of such disparate experiences – not an easy task.

Berlin has also had to deal with recreating itself after WWII. Bombing destroyed most of the buildings of the city as the Holocaust left its imprint on the psyche of the German people. There is an impressive new memorial to the victims which consists of 2700 grave-sized stones of differing heights spread out across a huge open space. Underneath is an information center filled with individual stories and memorials to the victims.

When Lothar joined us, we stopped for dinner at a restaurant where the band played favorites from the 1970’s rock era. I never expected to hear songs from Creedence Clearwater Revival or the BeeGees that night and noticed that everyone in the restaurant was singing along with the English words. The next evening, we went to the Berlin Philharmonic where we heard an all Mozart program that was also fun but in an obviously different way.

The delightful spring weather held for an enjoyable boat trip down the canals watching buildings old and new go by. Since the commentary was all in German, I’m sure I missed a lot but after having been in the city for a couple of days, I recognized many of the landmarks. We tied up our Berlin experience the last morning by visiting a museum of the history of Berlin. With all sorts of interactive exhibits, we were able to walk through rooms depicting days of Prussian soldiers, watch film clips from the 20’s and 30’s, visit both an apartment from the eastern and western sides of the wall in the 50’s and experience the horrors of the war years. As we entered one exhibit room, the sound of crashing glass made me jump, just as it did those who lived with stones thrown through their windows in the Jewish ghettos. The film clips of the wall coming down brought back the joy of that night which many of us remember seeing on television.

Berlin is an interesting and lively city, one which has seen more than its share of suffering in the last 100 years. We left there on Sunday afternoon by the efficient German train system to return here to my friends’ familiar home here near Marburg. Their youngest son met us at the train station and made a delicious dinner. The last time I saw him was at our home in 2000. We reminisced about his time in Vermont where he was ahead of the curve, tasting Ben and Jerry’s ice cream long before it became a staple in Germany.

For the first time in months, I woke up in a place where I have been before with a family cat rubbing its fur against my legs in a remembered kitchen. I’ll be here until Friday when I take the last flights of this journey back to Boston. In the meantime, I am enjoying the comfort and friendship here, my reconnection with both my good friends and western culture.

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Turkish Delight

I first heard of Turkish delight reading stories where children pleaded for the treat. All over Istanbul one has a chance to sample the many varieties. It is a confection covered in white powdered sugar covering a slightly gooey middle with various flavors added. Many are nut-filled, primarily pistachios, but sometimes fruit flavors as well. One of the things about Istanbul is the chance to buy things almost anywhere whether its on the street, in one of the two major bazars (the earliest shopping malls) or in a store. There are persistent and clever sales people ready to lure you into their shops for a free cup of Turkish coffee or the ever present apple tea. On the way to the airport this morning, a group of us were comparing all the clever ways they have of connecting with foreigners whether as a chance to practice their American English (in my case) or to taste someone’s ice cream (didn’t happen to me). Many of the salespeople are selling carpets.

The first morning I took the tram to the Spice Market, a smaller (yet still huge) market known for its colorful displays of spices. They were there in all their autumnal like colors. Along side were samples of Turkish Delight as well as all kinds of dried fruits and nuts. I loved eating in Istanbul. There were men selling cherries in little bags on the bridge across the Golden Horn, roasted chestnuts hot from their cart, ears of roasted corn, and donar, the sandwiches of sliced meats. Turkey is also famous for their lamb dishes and kebabs. After not eating much meat for many weeks, I made up for lost time savoring melt-in-your-mouth lamb cubes cooked with figs, apricots, raisins and pistachio nuts. I tried kebabs on the street and donar in the market. I started each day with a breakfast of bread, cheese and salad on the roof of my guest house with a gorgeous view of the Marmara Sea filled with huge container ships and ferries.

Like in the story books, I also visited a real palace that looked liked it came out of the illustration of a fairy tale with its pointed towers and crenellated tops. It was especially fun to visit the harem where hundreds of girls were kept for the sultan’s pleasures. The walls were covered in beautiful tiles and the views of the water surrounding the peninsula that is Istanbul were gorgeous.

Nearby were the famous Haghia Sofya church that was converted into a mosque and is now a museum and the also famous Blue Mosque. I did a tour of both places where I heard way more than I can remember about the history of these ancient buildings. I could hear the call to prayer from many places in the city during the day and nights. Outside of the mosques there are places for the men to do their ablutions, where they do a ritual cleansing before prayer. I was startled in one restaurant bathroom where women were washing their feet in the sink as part of their ritual cleansings. Istanbul had many women wearing head scarves and almost as many in their full black burkas.

After hours of walking on cobblestones up hills and down, I decided to treat myself to a traditional Turkish bath. These are mostly for tourists these days but the one my guesthouse recommended was built in 1485 and has been in continuous use since then. The only other woman was from India and we chatted companionably in the sauna as the first step in our cleansing (just as the women of former times visited in the privacy of the baths). From there we lay on heated marble slabs where we were each scrubbed vigorously by older women wearing only their underwear. After the first scrubbing we were rinsed with warm water and then the real fun began. Using some sort of bubble making bag, we were scrubbed again, this time with a frothy lather of bubbles. Using their strong hands we were also “massaged” but with strong, sometimes painful, squeezes. I felt like a piece of meat on a slab but I’ve never felt so clean! After a warm rinse and a shampoo, we floated in a pool of cooler water. My new friend and I both decided to go warm up again on the marble slab where I could easily have fallen asleep.

I was only there for a few days but Istanbul has a charm about it that makes me want to come back and explore again (as well as the rest of Turkey). There was an older man who offered me more than a chance to see carpets. I suppose if I had said yes there could have been a fairy tale ending to go with the Turkish delight and the palace but alas, I said no. Time to keep going west, young woman, and meet up with friends in Berlin.

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Booking it out of Beirut

It was only a few minutes after I posted my Beirut blog that I got an unsettling email from Sharon. We knew a sheik had been killed in the north the night before and now we knew there would be repercussions. On the way to school, my friends had noticed the quiet streets. Upon arrival they learned of gunfire in the city overnight in the neighborhood where many of their students had spent the night huddled in hallways. Only half the children showed up that morning. Sharon advised me to skip my wandering about the city and stay close to apartment. I finished up my packing and settled into a good book, looking anxiously out the window from the balcony every now and then to look and listen. When the phone rang, I startled. Michael was on the phone. The funeral for the sheik was to be held at 2 p.m. that day and everyone expected trouble. School was closing at noon. Better to get out of town now as the road to the airport is the first to close and traffic could be disrupted by demonstrations or tires burning in the street.

Alright then! With a quick final packing and heart racing from the adrenaline (I’m not used to dealing with gunfire and demonstrations), I made my way out to the street to find the taxi. One stopped right way but it wasn’t white like the one I was expecting so I waited, as hard as that was. A few minutes later, an older gentleman in a white taxi stopped. I asked with a pretend phone to my ear if he had been called, he nodded and off we went. Other than an army truck and soldiers at the end of the street, I didn’t notice anything askew. As we drove through the streets, my heart ached for the people of Lebanon for whom this violence was all too familiar. It’s a country with such a tenuous peace.

Because I was so early, I settled in to wait for the airline desk to open. I played peek a boo with a young child nearby, eliciting warm smiles from her scarved mom. Once inside the gate area, there were televisions turned to the funeral. People were gathered around them, watching silently as people chanted and walked through the streets. Since it was all in Arabic, I have no idea of the words.

It got closer and closer to the time of my boarding but still there was no plane. They announced that the flight to Syria was cancelled but no word on my flight. Eventually, a flight crew and the plane arrived to my relief. I took my seat on the plane next to a young couple who were part of a Cirque de Soleil traveling crew heading to Croatia for a week of R&R. (That seems like a nice potential occupation!)

The announcement was made that we would not be flying for another 40 minutes. Eventually, though, we made it up and into the air. My heart rate settled back to an easy rhythm for the 2 hours to Istanbul.

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Layers of Lebanon

The map on the airplane seat back showed that we were flying through the “Neutral Zone” somewhere between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. A phrase like that should give comfort, I suppose, when flying into a country where people are currently being killed by their neighbors in Syria. Many people have questioned my sanity when I mention that my next stop on this adventure was Beirut. “Beirut? Aren’t you afraid?” I usually just mentioned that I have friends there, they feel safe and of course, I’ll be fine. The civil war ended years ago.

Still, with things heating up in Tripoli in Northern Lebanon recently, I have had my moments of wondering if this visit was a good idea but the plans were made and off I went. As we flew along the coast, my seat mate, a Lebanese businessman who flies all over the Gulf countries, gave me an airborne tour of the city. Lego like tall buildings worked their way up the steep mountain hillsides, one box like structure stacked up next to its neighbor. The city hugs the sea (the Mediterranean) and every bit of land seemed to be covered with tall buildings except for the green space of the American University of Beirut which is next to the school where Sharon and Michael work. Close to the airport, on the southern end of the city were low lying shack like buildings. My new friend explained that refugees moved here during the 15 years of the war and that a solution to what to do with them was yet to be found.

When we landed after 9 hours of flying and 4 time zones west, the sun gave me a beautiful sunset as a welcoming gift. I could see fireworks from the plane window -another welcome. What a delight it was to get off a plane in a foreign country, go through passport control and customs and see familiar faces welcoming me. It has been a really long time since anyone met me at an airport.

Sharon and Michael are friends and colleagues from home – a teacher and principal who decided to spend two years working in a foreign country. They generously shared their apartment on the 8th floor with me for this long weekend and planned my tour of Lebanon. The first day, though, they had to work so I was on my own to explore the city. Beirut has been called the Paris of the Middle East and indeed, the beautiful walkway along the sea feels very much like the south of France. The stores are filled with designer fashions and an unusual number of lingerie shops (apparently there are some surprises under those women covered in black robes and head scarves). French is evident in the same way as English although Arabic is the primary language.

Since Beirut is still recovering from the war years, there are certain things that make it unique in places I’ve visited. There are bombed out buildings evident in many places, cement structures left empty and scarred, including the Holiday Inn where the “hotel war” of 70’s was fought. I can see the looming hulk of the building from the apartment as well as the street where Terry Anderson was kidnapped. As I spent several hours wandering the city, though, I never felt unsafe. Navigating was tricky as one of the things missing here is street signs and addresses. I knew the general direction I was going as the sea surrounds two sides but I never found the new downtown, totally rebuilt since the war. I saw a few Lebanese police on one corner finally and stopped to ask them to point on my map where I was. He said he didn’t speak English but did speak some French, so I worked through the rust in the French section of my brain and discovered I had walked almost twice as far as I thought south into a Hezbollah controlled area of the city. Maybe the tank next to him should have been an indication that I wasn’t where I thought I was but I later learned he was probably just guarding a special person or place. Still, I made a quick retreat back towards the Hamra area where the city from the war years had been left more or less intact. I was starving after walking for hours and sat myself down in the first restaurant I found.

There is a reason why the Lebanese are known for their delicious cuisine. After all the rice of Asia, I ordered an entirely different meal. I started with tabouleh (a salad of parsley and tomatoes) and mixed grill which is a variety of tasty meats. It was delicious. (and incredibly pricey after my cheap Asian meals). Sharon and Michael helped me to try all kinds of Lebanese meals from the fatoush salad and kibbeh (ground lamb breaded and fried) starters to manaeesh bi zaatar – a flat bread kind of pizza served with an interesting mixture of spices that we bought off the street. By the sea, we also ate the most expensive but delicious fresh caught long skinny fish which we ate with a garlic filled paste that also goes well with French fries, Belgium style.

After lunch, I found my way to the coast where I saw two huge rocks in the sea known as the Pigeon Rocks. I walked down the hill, past the military with their guns and razor wire, past the amusement park and past young children with their robed grandmothers playing in the ocean. With some navigating difficulty, I finally found my way to Sharon and Michael’s school. In Sharon’s 4th grade classroom, I was the living geography lesson describing my travels briefly and answering their questions. As this is an international school, children wanted to know if I had visited their home countries from Russia to Holland (and no, I don’t know if I passed one girl’s grandmother’s house in Amsterdam). On the way back, I explored a little museum filled with antiquities. My mouth dropped as I realized that some of this pottery and even glass was from over 7000 years ago.

That evening we enjoyed dinner and drinks with a couple of colleagues. I learned more about the lives of these international educators, some of whom travel to postings for a few years in different countries around the world. We ate dinner in the new downtown, a Disney-like place with its brand new buildings not yet having achieved much in the way of character. The area is built around a French-type Place d’Etoile (star place) but with ancient Roman ruins, a rebuilt ancient mosque and an old Christian church all next to each other. There is a bullet scarred monument called Martyrs Statue, all that’s left of an area which used to be a tree-lined beautiful park.

Michael and Sharon had rented a car for the weekend so I could see more of this Connecticut sized country. In looking at the map, they showed me the route that they had hoped to share with me. Unfortunately, because of the unrest, they had been advised to stay away from one road where we might become kidnap victims. Instead, they asked if I was comfortable visiting a place about 10 miles from the Syrian border where we would be safe but if the proximity was too unsettling, we could go elsewhere.
I’m glad we went.

We drove a couple of hours up and over steep mountains, through various military checkpoints and past Bedouin settlements to Baalbek, an ancient town. My brain tried to synchronize all the layers of the people that inhabited this place from the Phoenicians (founders of our alphabet) to the Romans, each leaving their mark. There was evidence of people living in this area over 7000 years ago and we could still see the foundations and walls of their buildings! The largest Roman ruins in the world remain standing here including a temple with some ceiling portions still intact. A guide took us through the huge area pointing out the carvings, the huge stone columns, and explaining the multi-layered history of the ruins. Imagining the thousands of slaves who cut the giant stones, moved them for miles and were able to create these huge structures without machinery was mind-blowing. To think that they have withstood earthquakes and warfare and still be so intact was amazing.

On our visit to Byblos the next day, the sense of awe remained. Right next to the beautiful blue-green waters of the Mediterranean, was the same harbor that the Phoenicians used in their trade and the Romans used to put their mark on this place. There was a castle from the Crusaders, a theatre from the Romans and a temple built in 3000 BC by the Amorites. We clambered underground to see the tombs that have been there since 2000 BC and climbed up to peek into the windows of a 18th century home. We did our own acting on the theatre stage and just settled into the beauty of a perfect blue sky day, clear enough to see Beirut about 25 miles south down the coastline. Bright pink flowers added another layer of color to the palette and added to the charm of this quaint seaside town.

As we settled into our harborside restaurant seats to enjoy more Lebanese food (this time freshly caught fish), we watched bride after bride, carry her huge wedding skirts to be photographed by the sea. Parties of families ventured out past the harbor wall in sketchy open boats where we could hear their shrieks as the big waves bobbed them up and down in the open water. Here was the place where the alphabet was created and so many thousands of years later, people were still coming to enjoy this beautiful spot. In the meantime, just up the coast another 15 miles or so, soldiers were trying to keep the fragile Lebanese peace from exploding into violence yet again.

I remember learning about the Fertile Crescent in junior high and hearing about the war in Beirut as I was becoming an adult. I never really understood all the ancient history and couldn’t pass a test on the prehistoric eras or all the things happening in the Middle East right now. Still, being here has been not only an education but a delightful time filled with sunshine, good friends, good food and a whole new set of experiences. I’m glad the Syrians didn’t scare me away.

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From Temples to Mosques

For the fifth time, I flew back to Bangkok today. In the morning, I start my journey west to Beirut. Coming here again feels like home in a way even as I try out another hotel. It makes me realize how much I have learned about life here compared to my first night in Bangkok back in early March. This time I walked to the 7-11 (they are everywhere in Thailand) to get a cold beer for a cheap price and stocked up on the cheap snacks. I got one last inexpensive massage, still a deal even at inflated hotel prices. The inevitable evening thunderstorm didn’t get in my way as the massage place is right next door in this hotel. I had one last Thai dinner and tomorrow I’ll spend my last Thai baht at the airport. Another chapter of this adventure is ending.

Yesterday at this time I wasn’t sure I would make it back to Bangkok. The night before I had gone out to an extravaganza performance called Smile of Angkor. It was an entertaining and amusing production that was like a Cambodian version of Cirque de Soleil complete with 3D effects, giant video, a pond of water on the front of the stage, amazing sets and costumes and dancers. There were also three young gymnasts who contorted their young, limber bodies into shapes that shouldn’t be possible. It was the kind of performance that you wouldn’t find in the US, I imagine with titles of the various chapters called Ask God, Glorious Kingdom and Resurrection. Where there was narration, the words flashed above the stage in 4 languages – English, Cambodian, Korean and Thai. The audience was filled with Asian faces and the only other Westerner I saw was a man with a Thai woman.

Likewise, the buffet dinner that was included in the ticket price was clearly catering to the majority of tourists to the area, many of whom are Korean. As I scanned the many dishes (carefully labeled, thank goodness), I spied dumplings, Korean kimchi, BBQ (choose your ingredients for a stir fry), salads with things like seaweed and black sesame seeds, and some gelatinous treats labeled simply “sweets”. I tried several things, some familiar, some not, but tried not to overindulge.

When I came out of the theatre, my tuk tuk driver was there to meet me. The sides of the tuk tuk were pulled down as the rain was driving down. Unfortunately, the sidecovers didn’t enclose the vehicle and I was thoroughly drenched in short order. I laughed out loud as we drove through huge puddles, the memory of the surprise ending of the performance in my head – Beethoven’s Ode to Joy sung in Cambodian by the cast including several monks. It was definitely a different kind of night!

The next morning, the same driver took me on a tour of the lesser known temples. It was already hot when I climbed up the hill to the top for the first one. The view of the surrounding area was worth it, though, including a different perspective of Angkor.

As the day went on, we drove from one temple to another, each unique in its own way. One was choked with giant tree roots, another was a temple surrounded by 4 ponds. One was a three story climb up steep stone steps, another had a hall of dancers with carvings remarkably intact for being out in the weather for several hundred years. It was an interesting day, all the more interesting from what I had learned at the museum the day before.

Back in Siem Reap, I walked over to a local ice cream shop with a blissfully cool upstairs lounge. That’s when it hit. Something I had eaten at the buffet did not agree with me and it was all too clear. With a quick stop at a market for ginger ale and bananas, I made it back to my room. Within an hour, I was sweating from a fever even as I shook with chills. I put on warm clothes, turned off the air conditioning and shivered in the 90 degree heat. I spent the night in a feverish state, strange dreams, runs to the bathroom and lots of tossing and turning. In my lucid moments I wondered how or if I could get on a plane the next day.

Fortunately, I have a pretty hardy immune system and by late morning I was feeling pretty much back to normal and very grateful. The plane ride to Bangkok was quick and easy, especially compared to the uncomfortable hours I would have spent on a bus. I arrived in time for a swim in the pool before the inevitable thunderstorm came again.

At the airport I stopped by the Emirates Air counter to reconfirm my flights for tomorrow. The staff there were wearing red hats with head scarves built into them. For all the planes I’ve taken, each country has its own flavor on board. From just the outfits, I know I’m in for a different journey to the Middle East. Goodbye, Bangkok. Hello, Beirut.

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Winding Down in Asia

It probably started by visiting one of the Killing Fields, one of the places in Cambodia where some of the 3 million people who died during my lifetime were tortured and killed. It probably was fueled when I visited the Angkor Hospital for children where over 400 children are treated each day. There I learned that more than 1 in 8 children in Cambodia die before their 5th birthday. It might have been being on my own again after my Aussie buddies left town. It might have been being away from home on Mother’s Day or just being really tired from riding a bike in the heat and humidity of the temples of Angkor Wat. It may have been from the huge thunder and lightning storm that kept me at the bed and breakfast for dinner instead of a walk into town. For whatever reason, last night was the first time that I started to feel ready to leave the traveling life and head home. I think there’s a time in a journey of any length when you feel the end coming and I guess last night was it for me.

Now, after a good night’s sleep, messages from my children, some Skype calls and a new day, I’m back on the happy train. I am realizing though that in just a few days I’ll be leaving Asia behind after so many months in different countries. I’ll miss so much from the juicy, tropical fruits I have every day to the smiling and friendly people that live here. I’ll have to get used to paying more than $3.00 for a lunch or more than a few dollars for a massage. All the more reason to enjoy these last few days in Cambodia.

On the last day of our bike tour that ended here in Siem Reap, our merry band got a taste of life in the villages of Cambodia. We had a local guide take us to many places on our last day, most of which were home based businesses that were started after the people moved back from hiding in the mountains during the Pol Pot regime of the 1970’s and created new lives in new villages. There were people making the round rice paper wrappers that are used in spring rolls, people making paper thin slices of bananas to dry, a family run rice wine business and a home where sticky rice was stuffed into tubes of bamboo and cooked over a hot fire. They all worked hard and long days under the steamy conditions of Cambodia to feed their families. The most fragrant stop was a fish paste “factory” where drying fish sat in open tubs covered in salt.

The most moving place was a monument filled with human skulls and bones to honor the 10,000 people who died in one village. The atrocities described in bas relief and English words brought tears to my eyes. As we peddled through the villages, it was so apparent how few older people there are in Cambodia. More than half of the population now is children. At the children’s hospital, they said that over 4,000 doctors were killed in those years. Such atrocities are hard to understand but the Cambodian people who I have met have all been cheerful and pleasant people, somehow able to carry on. An older man was at the monument talking to us in Cambodian. Our guide said he had lived through the terror but we didn’t have the time to hear his stories.

I learned even more of the history of Cambodia yesterday when I visited the temples of Angkor Wat, considered to be one of the architectural wonders of the world. I signed on for a mountain bike tour rather than join a bus tour or hire a private guide. It was a good choice. Despite the high heat and humidity, bikes are naturally air-conditioned to a degree and there’s nothing like riding a bike through a jungle path and coming upon an ancient temple almost swallowed up by giant tree roots. It sure beats getting off a bus and following the crowd down the road!

Actually, our first temple was Angkor Wat itself surrounded by a giant moat and with lotus shaped towers looming on the horizon for miles. We walked through rock ruins, up stairs and along walls filled with stories carved in bas relief. There were hundreds of images of dancers carved into the walls all showing different dance positions, costumes and jewelry. It’s hard to imagine that such a huge and detailed building could have been constructed in the 1100’s. Indeed, there was a flourishing society in this area. The original residents were Hindu but under the 7th king converted to Buddhism (which is now practiced by 85% of the contemporary Cambodians) although the temples show elements of both religions.

We rode our bikes along the wall surrounding the next temple of Angkor Thom seeing water buffalo in the river down below us. Inside the gate was a favorite temple called Bayon. There were 37 statues left of the original 54 carved with giant faces on each of their four sides. That’s a lot of big heads! Here the carvings on the walls depicted every day life in Cambodia at the time from birthing scenes to cooking and playing chess. There were also carvings of the battles fought at sea depicting alligators and boats.

After a few less well known temples and gates, we came upon the temple made famous by the Tomb Raider movie where giant tree roots strangle the stone walls. It’s a maze of rooms, including an echo chamber where a thump on your chest makes a loud drum-like sound. This one is being renovated by India and it’s a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle of ancient stones.

It took a whole day to see the temples and an easy 15 kilometers peddle back to Siem Reap. After a jump in the pool to cool off, the heavens opened up with a huge thunder storm that lasted into the night. This morning, I decided to see the relics of the temples in the air-conditioned comfort of the National Museum. After learning so much already and seeing the temples themselves, it was an interesting time seeing the statuary up close and with good descriptions and videos. It helped me to put together more of the history of Cambodia and also helped to tie together my understanding of both Hinduism and Buddhism which I have been experiencing across Asia. I realized part way through the museum that anything made in the 13th century or beyond looked new. That’s a new way of seeing things!

Indeed, perspective is what it’s all about. Today, as I walked back down the humid streets, salty sweat sliding into my eyes and slithering down my back, I was feeling gratitude for the experiences that I am having here. Where else can I see snails for sale on a pushcart (I tasted one yesterday that was quite delicious), have a cold towel scented with wintergreen handed to me on a wooden plate as I entered the haven of an ice cream shop and enjoy a cup of mango sorbet for $1.00. The tuk-tuk drivers share their huge smiles even as I decline a ride and my guidebook teases me with all kinds of different options for tomorrow. Like the Cambodian people, but on a simple human scale, life has turned itself around for the better.

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Cycling to Cambodia with Me Mates

“Hello! Hello!”, came the young voices from somewhere in the shadows. With a bit of looking, you might see the children on the ground underneath their houses built on stilts or maybe they would be sitting on the stoop of a little shop. The braver ones would run toward the road, waving their hands and smiling as they greeted us going by.

It must have been a strange sight for them, four Australian men and one American woman riding by on mountain bikes, along with a Cambodian man racing ahead and a thin Thai man in the back. We crossed the border into Cambodia yesterday afternoon at a border crossing with little traffic. With the crossing came lots of changes. Suddenly we were riding on the “right” side of the road, something I haven’t done since I left Hawaii, the currency was American dollars (starting with the $25.00 fee for our visas at the border) and the terrain switched from the fruit orchards of Thailand to the green, rolling hills of Cambodia – quite reminiscent of a rural Vermont scene.

Along the road, though, were small, wooden homes built on stilts with all those children yelling and waving and their parents smiling along side. Like in Bali, the little shops sold soda bottles of fuel and cows wandered freely along the road. By the time we had climbed and descended hills for several kilometers, everyone was ready for a hot shower and a cold beer. Unlike in Thailand, the beer is barely cold and not something I would go out of my way to import. The choice is either Angor or Cambodia both quite pale and not particularly refreshing unless you pour them over ice, which is the local custom.

My new Aussie friends told me within the first hour that they fit the Australian stereotype – they like to drink. I was the first to be picked up for this bike trip by our two Thai guides early on the morning after I had arrived in Bangkok after an endless 12 hour trip back to the city from Koh Chang (and yes, a delicious dinner across the river the night before). On the way back there had been waiting for a taxi, waiting for a ferry (but the view of the dolphins chasing us was great), waiting for a taxi to the bus terminal. The bus left almost an hour late and then drove directly back to the ferry landing where we spent another hour before leaving. In Bangkok, it was a rushed and early start but I was excited to be going on a bike tour again, my favorite way to explore a new place.

In the van I learned that there would be three other participants. We drove through slow, Bangkok traffic to another part of the city passing embassies and financial institutions as well as the big name hotels. Down a side street, we found Clay, Lou and Brett, three long-time friends who were just back in the city from their motorcycle trip to Phuket. As we drove to the coast, we all chatted and told a few stories. They were nervous about riding “push bikes”, as none of them had very much, if any, experience since riding as kids. I relaxed and decided I could probably do alright with these blokes.

Arriving at the beach, Seen and Tik, our guides, set up the mountain bikes while we wandered around the local aquarium gaping at the colorful fish, manta rays and sharks. I was glad to see all Thai people there. One of the things about bike tours is it is easier to get away from the Western tourist world. Indeed, as we started our ride along the coast, we saw new sights for me. There were anchovies and shrimp drying on racks along the road, shrimp and oyster farms in the water and fishing boats lined up under a bridge. It was a hot ride but the ocean breezes kept us cool enough. Still, after a couple of good uphills to lunch, we were ready to relax and enjoy a Thai seafood lunch. Seen ordered a bunch of dishes and we all shared in Thai style. Some were blistering with chilies, others I could eat without worrying, but all were delicious. I heard a fair bit of complaining about sore backsides but otherwise, we all were pretty compatible, peddling along at various speeds but sticking more or less together.

The first night we spent at a private home, fitted out with guest rooms. I had a great spot over a little pool and behind my room were greenhouses filled with hydroponically grown food. For breakfast we had freshly picked, organic greens along with our eggs. Salad has been rare on this journey and I enjoyed every green bite.

The night before I had a different kind of bite. We happened to arrive in Chantaburi in time for the Durian Festival. For those who don’t know, durian are huge fruit I had first tasted in Bali that are known for their terrible smell. Actually, as I write, I can see a sign in my motel room that shows a sign for no smoking and a picture of a durian with the same line crossed through it. The inside, though, is a creamy fruit which I find quite tasty. We enjoyed wandering through the festival, seeing the various wares for sale, including a lot of jewelry as this is a gem mining area. There were all kinds of foods to eat as well but after a big dinner, none of us were particularly hungry. When we arrived at the fried insects, though, the challenge was on. Having passed up my chance at trying a cricket or grasshopper the last time I was in Thailand, and with my own need to keep up with the “boys”, I had myself a cricket. I can’t say it was delicious – more like a crunchy snack – but I can check that off my list now.

On our ride the next day, we had lots of opportunities to taste new things as we rode through many fruit orchards. Along the way, we had some mangosteens, prickly red rambutans, longsam, dragon fruit, rose apple and freshly picked bananas. Riding through the villages and orchards was very pleasant but what loomed in the Aussie’s minds were the two big hills coming up. With the increasing temps (probably in the 90’s), two jumped in the van as Lou and I gamely rode up them on our bikes. We arrived hot and sweaty but triumphant at our lunch stop where, once again, the food ranged from mild to mouth numbing.

Our bikes were packed up and put in the van at that point as they would go back to Bangkok in the van with Tik and we would get new ones at the Cambodian border a few miles away. After crossing through customs, we met Chum who greeted us with fresh coconuts, new bikes and helmets and the news that our next several kilometers were not going to be flat. I didn’t mind, though, as the sun had gone behind some clouds and the newness of the Cambodian experience kept my mind engaged.

This morning there was some anxiety about doing 92 kilometers, a distance that loomed large for the novice riders, especially given the heat and some hills. I borrowed some Aussie chamois cream (aka butt butter) creatively advertised as good for the “down under” and we were off. We took the shortcut through the dirt roads, dodging geese, dogs, mud and potholes, but shortly joined a main road. Much of the day was a straight shot down a highway. As we passed through villages the children’s voices called from both sides of the road and people smiled and waved as we passed. At our snack stop we were fueled with sticky rice and bananas, fresh, delicious mangoes and papayas and various sweets made with palm sugar. The Aussies pulled out some Australian gifts they had brought from home and gave them to some shocked children nearby. The one with the baseball cap grinned from ear to ear while the mouse pad recipient looked a little shocked. For these kids without electricity, they must have wondered what this strange thing might be.

After the snack, we spread out for kilometers along the roadway. I was alone for miles, riding down the long, hot highway, flat as a pancake now and with fields and no shade on either side. The shoulder was unavailable a lot of the way as there were miles of tapioca roots, cut up and drying on the sides of the roads. We saw trucks piled high with the thick, brown roots and huge piles of them ready to be cut up with cleavers on wooden blocks.

We were all grateful for our lunch stop in a little shady village on the edge of a mountain. After a little hammock rest, a couple of us climbed the 800 or so steps up to the top where we could see an amazing view of the area as well as the huge golden Buddhas and temples and a monastery at the top. It was a short 15 kilometers after that to arrive at the bigger city of Battambang where we are spending the night. We could see lots of woodworkers through the town and indeed, the furniture here is huge, wooden, and has beautiful carvings. Our last dinner together will be tonight and we’ll finish riding in Siem Reap tomorrow. It’s been fun being the token female. I always get served first, there are no lines for the women’s rest room (if there even is one) and I’ve learned a few new Aussie phrases. Nice folks, a beautiful country, and food that’s not quite so spicy – life is good in Cambodia.

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A Wet Noodle in Koh Chang

A word of caution right up front. I’m writing under the influence. I’ve just had the best massage of my life and it might affect my writing. It was also the first time that I’ve paddled a kayak to get to a massage but it took a couple of very soggy tries to get there. See, I’m already writing out of order. Let me go back a few days.

Early Wednesday morning I was talking with a friend on Skype in the lobby of my guesthouse in Bangkok when a man approached me to say that my bus was here. The bus was to take me to Koh Chang, an island in the Gulf of Thailand about 4-5 hours away. It was a good sign that he had arrived 15 minutes early, or so I thought at the time. I had chosen this particular island because two Bangkok locals that I had met on the trek in Nepal recommended it when I mentioned I was looking for an island that was quiet, not full of tourists and fairly easy to get to. My guest house had a little travel agency so they sold me a cheap ticket for the bus and ferry and made all the arrangements.

The bus turned out to be a huge, comfortable double decker model. I settled in with my new headphones from the mall and my ipod for the ride. We didn’t get far. Just down the street we stopped to pick up more passengers and an hour later we were finally on the highway. Since the scenery appeared to be just miles and miles of the suburbs, I finally watched a movie I had downloaded on my ipad back in Hawaii, Finding Forrester. It was an interesting story (watch it if you haven’t) and I could check off a couple more hours. We stopped a couple of times – once for food and once for gas. The oppressive heat had followed us out of the city and we gratefully returned to air conditioned seats. As the hours inched along, we finally started to see signs of the coast, a fish packing plant and signs for beaches.

We stopped at a huge open pavilion where women asked us for our ferry tickets. After the paperwork was done, we waited over an hour for the open sided pickup truck to take us to the ferry. Once on the boat, it was at least another 45 minutes before we started to move. By the time we landed on Koh Chang, it was almost 10 hours since I got on the bus. So much for an easy to get to island.

Due to a communication error, the owner of the guest house was not at the landing as I had hoped. I struck up a conversation with a young German man who was going to the same part of the island as I was. Once again we piled into the back of a truck for a ride up and over the twisty mountain road, dropping passengers off at the aptly named, White Sand Beach, before our stop to a less touristy destination further south. The driver pointed down a dirt road and we both started walking not really sure where we were headed. It pays to travel with little luggage. About a mile down the road, a car came along side and I flagged it down. Saying the name of the guest house, they showed me the back seat and I piled in saying goodbye to my German friend and wishing him luck. They smiled and left me at the gate of a resort. It wasn’t where I was staying but at least I didn’t have to walk so far. The resort owner pointed further down the road. I put my pack on my back and resumed my trek.

I recognized the boardwalk through the mangrove swamp from the pictures on the website. Home, sweet home for most of a week has been a small rebuilt fisherman’s cottage on stilts over a small river that runs to the sea. There are 3 small rooms and a two room family suite with its own deck. I scored the suite because the air conditioning wasn’t working in the room I had reserved. Things were looking up.

The next day they got even better. Barefoot, I walked a mile down the beach to Baan Zen yoga where I had enrolled for a 3 day yoga/zen intensive retreat that I found online. When I arrived, I discovered that the other participant hadn’t shown up. Joy, a delightful French woman about my age, said she would be willing to teach just me but I would have to work very hard. She wasn’t kidding. For 3 days I walked the mile down the beach first thing in the morning, worked for close to 2 hours, walked back to my cottage and repeated the process again at 5 p.m. Joy’s home is a beautiful wooden structure surrounded by tropical gardens and includes a hexagonal deck that sits out over a canal. Out of six sessions I only got to be outside one night and that’s because is has been raining. It has been raining a lot.

Normally, the rainy season here begins in June but due to global warming or just bad luck, I have experienced storm after storm. The first morning I woke to huge claps of thunder and tropical down pours. Out on the river in a kayak one afternoon, I got caught in a drenching rain. Walking up and down the beach, suddenly a storm would come up. I’ve traveled everywhere, except the kayak, with a huge umbrella and waterproof ziplock bags.

Today, without the schedule of my classes, I got up early and finally took a walk down to the other end of the beach about 2 miles without getting wet except from the warm ocean waves. It could have been anywhere tropical. There were the palm trees waving in the breeze, waves rolling into shore, coconuts lying around here and there but the writing in the sand was in Thai script, the shells were different, the families were all Thai and the fish caught in the tidal pool were brightly colored. This is a holiday weekend here and families were out in force doing the usual beach things. I was one of only two westerners I saw. When I offered to take a group photo of some teenage girls, they all thanked me the same way with hands in prayer position by their hearts and a nod of their heads.

Once I got back and had a little breakfast at a beach side restaurant, it started raining, but at least I had finished my walk. It doesn’t rain all the time but I have managed to read a whole paperback thriller I found on the swap shelf here. I’ve also experienced some incredible yoga classes. Joy has twisted and shaped me into all kinds of impossible positions and had me doing long and complicated breathing and meditation exercises. The result was that I felt energy moving through my body in a way I’ve never experienced before. At one point I thought she was tapping on my back until I realized she was sitting across the room. Apparently, I’ve been unblocking and rearranging my energy centers and it’s all good. At least, I feel great!

And that was all before the massage. A quick paddle across the river brought me to a massage school that I had heard about. On my second try, I arrived fairly dry, tied up the boat and settled into a small room. Thai massage is done clothed but they handed me a pair of shorts and a little top to wear. I’d had a massage done like this several weeks ago but this time there was a lot more pressure and I was once again twisted into some unusual positions. I thought I was all stretched out from 3 days of yoga but this therapist managed to find new ways to stretch my body. Later, she started in with an oil massage of my back, shoulders and neck. When she left the room, I thought it was over but in short order she was back with a heated bag of sand which she managed to use to great, relaxing affect all over my back. After a cup of tea and about $12 for an hour and a half, I managed to paddle the boat back to my little home here. I finished my book and got out my ipad and here I am. It’s been raining as I write but the sun is coming out as the drips lessen their pace. There’s supposed to be a good restaurant right across the river for a nice final dinner here before I leave in the morning. Think I should chance it?

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A Sweaty Tourist in Bangkok

One of the hazards of traveling in Southeast Asia is temple fatigue. Having donned my long sleeves and a long silk skirt, I braved the 100 degree humid temps here in Bangkok and did the mandatory sight-seeing temples yesterday. I started out early to join the lines to see the Royal Palace and the famous emerald buddha first. The sparkle quotient is really high here with walls and roofs covered in shiny mosaics and lots of golden statues surrounding the buddha figures. Like in Bhutan, there are piles of shoes outside the temples as the visitors pad in barefoot to pray and observe in front of the statues. The crowds got thicker as the day progressed, pilgrims from all over the world coming together in these sacred places. One of my favorites was the world’s largest reclining buddha, barely fitting into its building about the length of a football field and reaching several meters high. The feet alone were taller than me and made of mother of pearl inserts – the most beautiful feet around.

Another highlight was the Temple of the Dawn. In order to get to this one you have to cross the river by ferry. On the opposite shore you can see the spire sticking way up into the air in the Khmer style of Cambodia. What I didn’t know until I arrived is that you can climb way up onto the tower using a set of really steep outside stairs. Despite the heat, I made the mid-day climb, sweating profusely but enjoying the view from high above the river. There were few people up there and I could pretend it was all for me, this aerial view across the river with spires of other temples shining in the hot sun.

Before I got to Bangkok I was overwhelmed by the various forms of getting around this huge city. I was happy to figure out the boat system, though, and took an express boat down the river to the central pier passing barges along the way and seeing the fast long tail boats whizzing up and down the river. I boarded the SkyTrain to get to another part of the city where I visited the Jim Thompson House. He was an American architect who is known for making the Thai silk industry into an international phenomenon. In the process, he made a lot of money and used it to procure an impressive collection of Asian art and build a beautiful teak house. Unfortunately, he disappeared on a trip to Burma and was never heard of again. I enjoyed seeing the collection and his unique home. I also managed to find my way back to my guest house which was an accomplishment in itself by walking, skytrain and a boat. For my first day on my own in several weeks, I did alright.

The flight out of Bhutan was the scary experience that I had expected on the way in. Flying up and over the high mountains we could feel all of the up and down drafts. My seat mate and I kept exchanging glances as the jet shook from side to side and up and down with mountains just off to our sides. Indeed, it takes so much fuel to make the climb that we had to make a stop in Bangladesh to refuel. Apparently, the plane can only carry so much fuel to make the steep ascent. I just kept reminding myself that they do this every day – well, most days at least. I always feel a little more secure when there are monks on the plane and I was delighted to see my friend, the monkette in the airport who was also flying to Bangkok. I shared my photos of us with her and she came back over to where I was sitting and gave me a set of Malaysian prayer beads. It was a special moment. Maybe some day I’ll see her in Malaysia as she gave me her monastery address as well.

Back at the Bangkok airport, I spent the night with Marleen, my fellow Vermonter who needed some assistance to get on her early morning flight since she has been on crutches or a wheelchair since crashing her bike in Bhutan. Later in the morning I met up with Claudia and Virginia from our Bhutan tour who had a day planned with a private tour guide and were gracious enough to allow me to join them. We started the day by driving out of the city and boarding a boat to experience the Floating Market. Boats jockeyed for position in the crowded canals. We bought a bunch of bananas to bring to some elephants and some delicious coconut ice cream for us. I also bought some mangosteens, the tropical fruit I hadn’t tasted since Bali. On one deserted canal a monitor lizard swam in front of us. When he climbed up on the bank we got to see his impressive size. There were also huge snakes that you could carry and photograph for a fee. No thanks.

Back in the air conditioned car, we drove to the Bridge on the River Kwai. The bridge was destroyed during WWII but has been rebuilt. There was an impressive museum dedicated to the memory of those who built it and a railway for the Japanese using POW labor. The cemetery across the street is filled with the graves who died in the process. It was a sobering experience learning of the many who suffered there.

Our last stop was an elephant farm. Passing tapioca and sugarcane fields, we arrived at the elephant farm after a short drive. Since there were only 2 elephants reserved I was going to bow out but I ended up riding on the spine of Virginia’s elephant, a very bony experience. Fortunately it was only a short distance down to the river where we were to bathe the elephants. I seem to attract elephants who like to roll under the water so when this one started to go down I quickly jumped off. I left Virginia to do the scrubbing while I became their photographer dripping on the shore. Other elephants wandered down to cool off in the river and I was happy to be nearby and being soaking wet was actually a good experience in the heat of the day.

It was a long drive back to the city and the other two had a late night plane to catch so I got into a taxi to reach my guest house on the edge of the backpacker district. It has turned out to be a good place – simple, inexpensive accommodations on a quiet street near lots of restaurants and with good wifi. I decided to spend an extra day here to just wander about and enjoy Bangkok.

This morning I started out with a vague idea of places to see. Along the way I stumbled upon a parade at the Independence Memorial. It turns out to be Thai Labor Day and the people were protesting about the minimum wage. I wandered down streets and canals finding the street where you can buy golden statues of all kinds, canals with people hanging out in their homes, a beautiful park, more temples (I didn’t go in) and the chaos of Chinatown. I ended up in the electronics section where men and women were busy fixing circuit boards and televisions in the heat of the sidewalk. I also wandered through the warehouse area near the river and watched men load huge bags of garlic into baskets and chilies dried in the sun. The fresh pineapple from the street vendor really hit the spot.

For a change of scene, I decided to take the canal boat and Sky train back to Siam Square that I had passed the day before. The air conditioning revived me as I wandered one of the world’s largest shopping areas. Every luxury store was represented as well as all kinds of tech stores including an Apple store. I checked out the cinemas on the 6th floor teeming with Thais enjoying their fancy cinemas but decided to go down to the bottom floor to get something to eat. Again, there were restaurants from all over the world – some familiar like Swensens ice cream and McDonald’s – and others representing all kinds of cuisine from Korean to French. I also discovered the Gourmet Shop, a kind of Whole Foods that imports food from all over the world as well as selling the more prosaic things like rat poison and fabric softener.

I had thoughts about walking at least some of the way back to my guesthouse but as soon as the heat hit me I changed my mind and got on the modern air conditioned SkyTrain to the canal boat.

In the morning I’ll be taking a bus to an island a few hours east of here. I’m looking forward to some cool ocean breezes and activities I’ll describe in my next post. One month from today I’ll be on a plane home. Time sure does fly when you’re having fun!

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