A Month without Americans

“It is a big and beautiful world we live in. Most of us live and die in the same corner where we were born and never get to see any of it. I don’t want to be most of us.” Prince Oberyn Game of Thrones

Last night I broke a streak of over a month in the form of the lovely Ariana Garcia.

No, not a streak like that, get your minds out of the gutter, my mother reads this blog.

I hadn’t seen another American in 31 days, since I’d left Ariana after the USA/Germany game on June 26th in Chiang Mai. Since then, I’d been hanging out with Englishmen, Swedes, Belgians, Congolese, Finns and of course a bunch of drunken Muay Thai trainers.

Belgians, Finns, Limeys and Thais

Belgians, Finns, Limeys and Thais

A few Germans and Australians slipped into the mix in Northern Malaysia, as well as two of the most ruthlessly mirthless girls I’ve ever met from the German part of Switzerland. (Why anyone would live in a place filled with such people is beyond even my wildest comprehension, but I suppose inertia is a powerful force.)

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Parasailing in Langkawi

There were debates on health care with French Canadians (I like debating with Canadians, they don’t get nasty, they just get this bemused and incredulous look on their face that anyone would believe something different than themselves), knives pulled by scam artist Thais, and the occasional need for chivalry when a man exposed himself with a bawdy proposition to a girl I was traveling with.

 

Pull your pants up around Princess Jasmine damnit!

Pull your pants up around Princess Jasmine damnit!

There weren’t however, any Americans.

Homesickness comes in many forms. One of the worst is knowing that your crack about the Cubs is going to fall on deaf ears.

But then lo and behold, the Facebook machine told me that there was an American in Kuala Lumpur.

More importantly, there was an airport to get me the hell out of Malaysia.

It was great to have someone from back home to spend some time with. While we didn’t know each other before a hastily slurped pad thai street stall in Chiang Mai, it turns out that she was one of my bartenders for the company Christmas party this year. She decided, much like I did, that she didn’t want to live and die in the same small corner of the world where she grew up, so she bought a one way plane ticket and got out of there. Now she’s cooking up plans to spend a year in Australia, and maybe get a stopover in Europe in the meantime.

9000 miles away from home, we sat next to a street stall and talked about all we’d seen. Elephants in Laos, Bun Cha in Vietnam, fake Ray-Bans in Thailand, and obnoxiously drunken/drugged young British travelers. Then we walked through stalls looking for a Blackhawks jersey, made jokes about White Sox fans being white trash, and talked about just how badly we could use a homemade tamale. (I’m looking at you Mrs. Wojocinski)

It was great to have that, even for a few days. Just having a seamless connection with “real life” and the travel life. To know that no, in this whole world traveling bit, I’m not the only crazy one.

I was giving Ariana a hard time about how her dad must’ve done something really terrible to deserve having 3 beautiful daughters. (Somehow she thinks that 3 beautiful daughters is the most desirable outcome a man could have. I nearly choked on my Bok Choy as I thought of another poor soul who got 3 before returning to the well and getting 2 more for his trouble.)

In talking about why I wanted sons, I said, “well my dad is going to sleep like a baby tonight, yours has to worry about his little girl in a faraway land with some seriously aggressive locals.”

She looked back and laughed. “Honey, my parents are immigrants. They don’t have any idea where I am. Malaysia might as well be Mars. They just know that I’m not home.”

For as out of left field as long term travel is for me, it really put it in perspective when she said it like that. I was blessed with a Swedish great grandmother who has traveled here, there, and everywhere. Egypt in the 70s, Russia while it was still Communist. Europe more times than I can count, China, Scandanavia, you name it.

Even if I hadn’t really seen a lot of people travel extensively, I knew it could be done.

Ariana’s parents went on one very big trip. She had to blaze her own trail.

Cheers for having that courage. So many people with an easier path never do.

 

Friendships and Forks in the Road

Greetings from Bangkok. Turns out this is a real place, not just something that teenaged boys say before hitting each other in the balls.

Took the night train from Chiang Mai. Quite a nice way to travel when compared to the busses of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. I paid about $25 for a sleeper berth, which wasn’t at all what I expected. When I got onto the train originally, the seats were setup in the traditional 2 facing 2 format. I thought to myself, “Shit, you managed to get ripped off.”

In Bangkok, everyone with a voicebox is trying to rip you off.

There wasn’t really anywhere to put my bags either, so I just laid them in the middle of the two seats. I took a short nap sitting up, and then settled in to read for a bit. About 2 hours later, a small Thai stewardess walks up with a big Allen key and motions for me to get out of the way. 3 minutes later, there were two beds, top and bottom, laid out in front of me with small blue curtains almost holding back the light. There were even real pillows.

I was amazed and grateful, so I tucked my things into the top bunk, and laid back down in the bottom. Again, SE Asia has made me realize that height isn’t always an advantage, as even my very average frame was at the absolute maximum to lay flat in the bunk.

I had a little chuckle thinking about my 6’11’’ buddy Kiefer trying to lay in this bed… or hell, do damn near anything in this part of the world. God that’d be miserable.

After settling in, I went to go grab some dinner on the dining car. Dining car was a bit of a scene, with the mandatory moaning Thai music videos playing and the staff smiling and dancing. When I walked in I was the only phaulong (foreigner) in the room. I got a Pad Thai and a Chang beer, and tried futilely to talk to the older Thai gentleman sitting across from me. We got through our names, exhausted our knowledge of our non-native language and finally settled with smiling at each other and tapping our beers for cheers about 5 times.

He left, and two Westerners sat down next to me. I asked, “How ya goin’?” having picked it up from the Aussies, and we started to talk. After getting to where are you from, they replied Americans and I said the same. They actually thought I was Australian, which shocked me.

Turns out they are from…Indiana.

I thought I was going to have a heart attack.

One had gone to school at Arizona State University, and I asked which fraternity he was in. When he replied Sigma Chi, I asked if he ever met an alum named Kyle Uminger, a pseudo cousin of mine who had been the president of that chapter. Turns out, he had apparently given a talk at the house while he was there.

The world is a damned small place, evidenced today on a night train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok.

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Leaving Chiang Mai was bittersweet. As I left, I knew that I was leaving several good friends behind. Luke and Wendy (of the Thaket/Kong Lor Cave adventure and motorbike accident) finally caught back up with me. Luke and I went and watched the USA/Germany game, and then said our goodbyes afterward. He’s headed back to Australia in a couple weeks, to have a cornea transplant and hopefully open a food truck in Brisbane. In a little over 3 weeks, we had some great adventures.

Luke, Wendy and I in front of Kong Lor Cave

Luke, Wendy and I in front of Kong Lor Cave

From getting to Thaket in the middle of the night with nowhere to stay, with reports of Burmese body snatchers floating in and finally having a 10 year old kid take us to the neighbors, where he beat on the door at 2AM and told them to make us dinner. Finally some poor groggy man got out of bed and beckoned us in. We sat and laughed and drank beers while watching some old Champions League game.

The next day was when we crashed our motorbikes during the 4 hour ride to Kong Lor cave.

The night after that, we got into Vientienne in a pouring rain at 1:30AM and were promptly dropped off in an alley full of hookers by the least scrupulous tuk-tuk driver I’ve encountered yet.

The following hour and a half was an unfunny comedy of errors before we finally found a hostel that would take us.

I also left behind Fabio and Marlene, the German couple I’ve been traveling with for the past couple of weeks.

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They’ve been excellent traveling partners and great friends. We’ve ridden elephants, flown around Vang Vieng on go-karts, played endless games of Ralfrunta, and even seen off a near tragedy when our mutual traveling partner Marayna decided to take a header down some stairs (resulting in 40 some odd stitches.)

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We talked about a little bit of everything from politics, culture, language, movies, you name it. I can speak a very small amount of poorly pronounced German now (Marlene still thinks I have potatoes in my mouth,) and they know what phrases like “Hell in a handbasket” mean. I had a blast with them, and saw how a well functioning couple doing this kind of long-term travel operates.

The mere thought of traveling with most American girls like this is enough to give me grey hair, but Marlene was a trooper of the highest order; a veritable mobile pharmacy which could produce anti-diahhera medicine, toilet paper, contact solution, and mosquito repellent out of a bag which didn’t seem large enough by half.
I’ll miss Fabio’s bad jokes, which were always saved by the second punchline, “Ya, dat EEs funny. Right?” And I’ll miss Marlene yelling at Fabio during Ralfrunta, “Fabi-YO, I cahn see yooor cahds!”

They are headed to the Philippines from here, then back to Germany in a month after a full year of traveling from New Zealand through SE Asia. I promised that if I ever got to Germany that I’d stop in, and I’d imagine if Marlene has her way there will be a mini-Kraut padding around their flat if I wait more than a year or so.

As I got off the plane in Krabi, I wondered who I’d meet as I got to my hostel. Turns out, there was a ready made crew waiting in the dorm room when I got there. Dutch girls, with their throaty accents and slightly amazing hair products (just in time for the Netherlands/Mexico game!), a Welsh lad who was brutally offended that I didn’t know about rugby, and a parcel of English girls telling me all about their time in India.

I have the feeling I won’t lack for company here either.

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That’s the beauty of friendships on the road. In a mere few weeks, I’ve had more unique experiences with these people than many that I’ve known for years. I know how they react under pressure and how chippy they get when they’re hungry or tired. I know how they deal with a legitimate crisis and how easily they can laugh off a “toilet” which is little more than a hole in the ground. I’ve seen them on mopeds and I’ve seen how well they barter with tuk-tuk drivers. I sat across from them when the transmission fell out of our bus in the mountains, and I saw the fear on their faces when we drove past a bus just like ours that had rolled off the highway on a rainy night to Vientiane.

These friendships taught me things, both about others and about myself. So often we find ourselves squabbling with our friends in our routine lives, taking offense at this or that. None of it really amounts to a hill of beans, but we ball up our fists and get angry instead of just letting it all go.

I’ve seen enough of the world to know that lives intersect for a reason. Hell I wouldn’t be sitting where I am today if a collegiate acquaintance hadn’t been dumb enough to stay in the biggest dump of a hostel in Amsterdam and struck up a conversation with a certain dingo kicking Australian.

They traveled together for 5 months and thus began a lifelong friendship.

That dingo kicking Australian ended up becoming my roommate when he moved to NYC, and since then I’ve been on 4 continents with him and consider him one of my closest friends.

Thanks for picking a dump of a hostel Mr. Misamore, I owe you one.

If it weren’t for an interaction that I was unaware of until years later, the Conquest would probably be sitting in front of 8 computer screens swearing at non-existent gold customers. Instead, I’m sitting on the 10th floor overlooking Bangkok, celebrating the start of my 4th month on the road.

Friendships come in all different kinds. Some last for decades, others for only a few days. Appreciate them all and be careful about discarding them. The universe puts people together for reasons often beyond our comprehension.

There are enough forks in the road that end friendships prematurely. Don’t be like the fork-throwing monkey in Battambang and put one there artificially.

I can damn near promise that the issue you think matters so much isn’t half as significant as you think. Holding onto anger in one hand and a friend in the other, the choice seems pretty clear.

Kids Being Kids

While traveling, we’re drawn to the differences in culture. The way French girls smoke like chimneys and laugh after rapidly firing off the equivalent number of words in War and Peace, all in less than 20 seconds. The way English guys give a hearty laugh about something “lad-tastic” (Lad being English for “Bro”) and then cast their eyes about to make sure no one else heard.

How Germans walk around the bus they are about to travel in 3 times, before announcing in their sharply pronounced English, “Yes dis vill do.” And how a Brazilian girl, laughing throatily at something, will catch your eye just as her face finds the pose of maximum exuberant beauty.

The Brazilian eye thing really is like the shocking thrill of jumping into cold water…every single time she laughs.

You notice how Cambodians are never all working at the same time, and a few are inevitably hanging from a hammock taking a midday snooze. How the Vietnamese girls working at the hotel in Nha Trang can remember the name of every person under their roof within 2 hours of checking and Vietnamese men can whisk in and out of a room without anyone noticing their presence. You meet the legion of Laotian 12 year old girls who inevitably run the business end of so many guest houses.

The little things that you notice while traveling are endless. I could spend days talking about the little odds and ends that people do over here that are different from how we do them back home. Construction is done with scaffolding made of stripped tree limbs. Guesthouses are opened after the first floor is completed, and additional floors will be added ad-hoc as money allows. There isn’t a single place I’ve eaten over here that would come close to passing a US Food and Health inspection (but we all seem to survive.)

The last few days I’ve been spending time with a German couple from Cologne. They are 31 and highly experienced travelers, but are great fun and love to interact. Fabio, a second generation German of Sicilian extraction, and I have had a blast comparing things in Germany and the US. His girlfriend is Maleen, who is German of…German extraction. We’ve really come to understand some things about the other’s country. We’ve talked about national pride, welfare, family size, school size, divorce, travel plans, iPhones, tax codes, history, and of course the Autobahn. The also taught me a fantastic card game called Ralf-runta. (I’m sure that isn’t even close to spelled correctly.)

Fabio is teaching me German, (Maleen offers sporadic advice as well, “you sound as if you haff a mouthful of potatoes, TAKE DEM OUT!) and they are gleaning small bits of English off of me, words like “industrious” and “loophole.” He’s also getting a few “Moormanism’s” like, “many ways to skin a cat,” “hotter’n hellfire,” “neater’n socks on a rooster,” “hell in a handbasket,” and other, Gene Moorman-esque, less family friendly phrases. The kinds of language skills you can’t possibly get from a book, only real conversation.

The more we talk, the more I notice both differences and similarities between our cultures. The one thing that I always find interesting is when we either interact with or see small children. We always find common ground on how kids act.

Kids are kids the world over. I grew up with a school teacher for a mother, and working at the Boys Club with 150 kids a night running amok, so I’ve had a fair few dealings with kids and I find them fantastic to be around. Given the choice between frowning and smiling, they always choose the smile. Small things, sometimes as simple as a big refrigerator box can make them extraordinarily happy and when cranky a sandwich or a nap will nearly always fix the problem. Kids are simple because they only worry about things that actually matter.

Am I safe?
Am I hungry?
Does someone love me enough to help me if I’m in trouble?

You give a kid those 3 things, and you’ll have a well-adjusted kid. No book purchase necessary.

Kids in war zones don’t have it because they can’t feel safe.
Kids in Africa are just hungry.
American kids lose it because they don’t have enough positive daily interactions to actually feel loved.

In SE Asia, the family unit is omnipresent. Most guesthouses/restaurants/businesses of any kind are run by a multi-generational family. Side by side down so many streets the scene is exactly the same. Grandma is sitting with the baby, anyone from 12 to 50 is jumping up to do whatever needs done, and anyone under 12 is running around in a pack of 10-25 neighborhood kids.

Chilling with the local kids

Chilling with the local kids

At meal time, the whole family sits around a big pot of broth with vegetables, noodles and rice of some sort, and usually a skewer or two of meat. Everyone is laughing, interacting, talking about (well God knows what they’re talking about actually) and everyone is smiling. No one fidgets with a cellphone, the TV isn’t on, and no one is at all concerned about a phone ringing. If a customer needs someone, there is a quick circular wave of eyes around the table until someone throws their head back in a feigned pout and jumps up to take care of it.

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Pardon me for thinking that they don’t have it wrong.

Children in SE Asia are remarkably bold. These kids fear absolutely nothing, whether climbing a tree so high that I’m getting nervous, or the 10 year old firebreather in Saigon. I joked above about the 12 year old Laotian girl running the guesthouse, but anyone who stayed at Mr. Mo’s dealt with her.

I think they get this confidence from a couple different factors. The free play of the peer group in every possible situation imaginable and the fact that every adult in sight cares about their well-being.

The soccer crew

The soccer crew

American kids today are over sheltered to the point of comedy. Every activity is run by an adult, school, extra curricular activities, sports, play dates, you name it. Pickup baseball games are a bygone pastime, both because of liability to let unsupervised kids on a field and simply a lack of kids with the freedom to get on a bike and come play ball. Urban and suburban kids don’t have any open nature spaces to interact with, where they could push down dead trees or throw rocks or build dams across creeks or just get muddy.

4 generations eating together nightly

4 generations eating together nightly

Even if more American kids did have access to a natural landscape, how many would shut off the XBox to actually interact with it?

They have activities and homework. Scheduled play dates and clarinet lessons. Volleyball practice and youth group. They play video games for hours, against people they can’t actually see. A roaming group of teenaged kids is just an invitation to get harassed by police in many places, so interactions take place indoors, where activities are typically limited to drugs, sex and video games.

Seeing these people live, and how much they smile, I really wonder who has things closer to right. We’ve got a lot of things, but how many of us live close enough to have dinner with a family member even 1 night a week? Let alone being able to see your grandmother and every niece and nephew at every meal.

Kids are kids the world over. Needs are simple and happiness obtained with only the barest of requirements.

God bless them for that.

Horror and Hope in Cambodia

On a trip like the Conquest, there are countless moments that take your breath away. Whether a sunset on a deserted Australian beach, a pristine waterfall in the middle of no where in Vietnam, or a 9 year old firebreather on the streets of Saigon, the world has endless wonders with which to surprise and amaze.

Young firebreathers

Young firebreathers

Unfortunately, the cosmic scales don’t tip endlessly to the wonderful. The other, darker side of the coin exists, balancing out the good with the most reprehensible evil imaginable. Here in Cambodia, I saw one of the most horrific atrocities that humanity has ever perpetrated against itself.

A few levels of bones, they go 17 levels high.

A few levels of bones, they go 17 levels high.

I still remember vividly the day that Pol Pot died. It was my 11th birthday, and I was in the car with my dad who invariably had NPR tuned onto the radio. In the crackling monotone of AM radio, a voice came across and said “Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge and perpetrator of one of the worst genocides in history is reported dead in near the Cambodian border with Thailand.”

I had never heard of him, and when I asked Dad who he was, he simply replied, “Crazy bastard in Cambodia who killed almost half the population. Sure as hell didn’t deserve to die of old age.”

It was a sparse but totally accurate depiction. 16 years later, after exiting the boat in Phnom Penh after a 3 day ride up the Mekong from Saigon, I found myself in a position to deepen my understanding of one of the most nightmarish periods in human history.

Pol Pot was born the wealthy scion of an upper class family in Phnom Penh. Educated in traditional French Colonial style, he was sent onto further his education in Paris, where he studied Radio and Electronics. During his time in Paris, he became enamoured with the local Communist group, and took up their ideology.

After his failing his exams 3 consecutive times, he was forced to come back to Cambodia. There he took up teaching, a profession which he would later attempt to exterminate. He kept in contact with a close set of associates that he had come upon in Paris, and worked to further Communist aims back home.

In 1963, the French language and history teacher was voted the head of a Communist organization of less than 200 members. From this humble beginning, he forged the ferocious killing machine known as the Khmer Rouge.

S21. Former school turned torture facility. Barbed wire to keep prisoners from killing themselves.

S21. Former school turned torture facility. Barbed wire to keep prisoners from killing themselves.

The aims of the Khmer Rouge were to throw off the yoke of colonialism/monarchy that they felt through King Norodom Sihanouk. They held the peasant farming class as the ideal of a Communist society, and actively fought against modernization of any kind, which they felt only exacerbated class distinctions.

After waging guerilla warfare against the monarchy and subsequent democratic government, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. An estimated 3 million Cambodians would be killed over the next four years.

Rooms and rooms full of the faces of the victims.

Rooms and rooms full of the faces of the victims.

Cambodia’s total population was approximately 8 million when Pol Pot seized power.

Choeung Ek was merely one of many “killing fields” where the Khmer Rouge disposed of “enemies of the regime.” Enemies of the regime included urbanites, the upper and middle classes, the educated, anyone with glasses, and towards the end, those whose hands were not “hardened from honest labor.” As a part of the Khmer Rouge’s rural utopian plan, the cities were totally depopulated, and citizens of every stripe were forced into near slavery conditions, laboring unproductively in the countryside.

In 1990, Choeung Ek was designated as the primary memorial site for those lost in the genocide of the Khmer Rouge. Now a “stuka,” with the bones of the dead stacked in 17 levels, stands in the center of the now peaceful countryside which saw so many horrors a mere 35 years ago.

Sunset near the Killing Fields

Sunset near the Killing Fields

This was not merely men, but women and babies as well. A popular propaganda phrase among the Khmer Rouge was “to destroy the grass one must dig the roots.” Tactically this translated into bashing the heads of babies against a tree before throwing them into a mass grave.

The tree where they dashed babies

The tree where they dashed babies

The horror of that can’t be overstated. To stand next to a tree where men held babies by their feet and smashed them head first was one of the most guttural and brutal feelings I have ever received.

This was pure, unadulterated evil on the most base level.

The Khmer Rouge was eventually overthrown after 4 years of genocide by the Vietnamese, however the rest of the world still treated the Khmer Rouge as the government in exile until 1990. The perpetrators of this horror were granted a seat at the UN, strolling the streets of NYC with diplomatic immunity.

Justice apparently only has a place in the world of international politics when it is convenient.

Cambodia has largely recovered after losing 2 generations to the nightmare that was the Khmer Rouge. Phnom Penh is the most modern city I’ve seen since leaving Singapore, and the unfailingly positive attitudes of the Cambodian people is a big reason why. Like Vietnam, they refuse to let the past define them, but they demand acknowledgement of the horrors that happened in this beautiful country.

See the Killing Fields stuka in the background

See the Killing Fields stuka in the background

The day after I went to the Killing Fields, I took a sunset 4-wheeler ride around the area. The peaceful serenity was punctuated with the smiling faces of little Cambodian children, waving and screaming hello as if I were some movie star. There were women in brightly colored headscarves driving cattle, and groups of men huddled around laughing at the Cambodian dubbed version of Baby Got Back.

As we neared the end of the trip, I noticed a large group of kids playing soccer with some homemade goals. I pulled off the road to stop and watch, and snap a few pictures. Within a few minutes, one boy, named Chanra, came over and asked if we’d like to play. I’m certainly not my brother’s equal with a soccer ball, but I figured what the hell.

Damn it was hot

Damn it was hot


We played with the kids for about a half an hour, sweating our brains out in the slowly dropping sun. I looked over, and saw the stuka at Choeung Ek looking back at me.

Of all the moments I’ve had on the Conquest this far, this was the most powerful.

Literally in the shadow of a place which saw some of the most gruesome crimes against humanity a mere 8 years before I was born, we played soccer together. Khmer, American and British Indian, laughing and horsing around.

The soccer crew

The soccer crew

It was yet another lesson in not letting the past define the present.

There is only one day that we have control of, and that day is today.