"Cockroaches In Cambodia"
Thursday, October 17th, 2005
Phnom Phen, Cambodia
Greetings to all of you!
We've made it safely through Cambodia and have reached the final leg of our trip...Travelling from fall/early winter in the Himalayas of Nepal straight into the heart of the tropics was a shock to our systems. When our plane touched down in Siem Reap, Cambodia a sudden thought hit me that had escaped my attention entirely until I saw the swamped ricefields:
I hate the tropics.
Stepping into the searing heat and humidity of Cambodia is like eating a dozen glazed donuts then sitting in a sauna with a sweatsuit for days on end. Heavy and sickening.
It looked like the country was made of H-2-0 entirely and we were landing in waterworld until we spotted the houses on stilts (that weren't yet underwater) and all the palm trees and taxi drivers waiting to kidnap us and take us to the hotel of 'their' choice.
We quickly befriended two American guys (don't worry sweetheart...not nearly as cute as you!) who kept us laughing for several days through our explorations of the temples. The Khmer Empire was one of the greatest civilizations in all of Asia from around 900-1200 a.d. and created a network of temples that rival the pyramids of Egypt and the ruins of the Roman and the Mayan Civilization. And it was bloody hot when they built them, too.
It was driving through the countryside through the rice fields past the houses on stilts and small villages that we enjoyed the most. Our driver "Ban," (thanks for the suggestion Peter!) stopped for an impromptu lunch in a town with a school, two oxes, a bike and a half (missing the seat), and several kids playing with blue balloons. Within half an hour we realized they'd never seen a foreigner...one woman had met an African man years earlier and confused "African" with "American" so deduced that all Americans were as dark as the night. She was mesmerized with my mother's blue eyes. Within 45 minutes the entire village was lined along the dirt road watching us eat our rice and chicken as we watched them. We began to make faces. We began to get strange ideas. "Now, who are the monkeys?" are friend Ren laughed.
Within an hour, through some strange American logic, the 4 of us decided that we owed these kids and their mothers some sort of a performance, seeing as how we were the first foreigners they'd ever met.
I have no idea what happened next but mother and the American guys were shoving me into the center and I was rapping "Salt n'Pepa's" song "Shoop"...."Here I go, Here I go, Here I go again. Girls what's my weakness?!." The kids were absolutely blank.
They warmed up when I started to dance (picture a dirt road, rice paddies, a few very confused oxes, and a bunch of kids and women standing around barefoot against two rusty bikes) some hip hop moves (Hirschegger, you would have been proud!). One particularly fiesty Cambodian woman took it upon herself to mock my moves which the kids really loved. The whole village was clapping and cheering in absolute delight. The rest is a blur.
The kids took a turn singing for us, several were all lined up on a row of little plastic chairs, with full grins and giggling. The four of us couldn't figure out any songs we all knew the words to so we resorted to singing "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" with my mother and I doing all the callbacks and motions that go with driving Santa's sleigh.
We've left behind the legacy of a small Cambodian village who thinks that all Americans dance hip hop and sing Christmas Carols. But we did it in style.
In the late afternoon we headed to the last temple set in the jungle "Indiana Jones"-style. The movie "Tomb Raider" was filmed nearby. We had to hire an extra guide to take us on the appropriate footpaths through the jungle to avoid the landmines still present. For the first 15 minutes, the 4 of us followed him in a line like a row of ducks. Timidly. It was a sobering experience and a reminder of the horrors the Khmer Rouge govt. has left for its people.
The next night, mother and I celebrated our stay with a giant feast at a Cambodian restaurant filling our guts on pork crepes, rice rolls, spring rolls, fried noodles, weird shaped fruits and dumplings filled with anonymous meat.
We made the mistake of topping off the meal with a cockroach each that we bought from a streetside vendor. (How could we pass up the opportunity to eat cockroaches?!). Some Cambodians munch on them like popcorn so we thought we should give them a try. Yes, they were full-grown 1.5-2 inch long black, oily cockroaches that we chewed on and swallowed with eyes, legs, and crunchy carcuses. They weren't so bad...crunchy and a bit fleshy in parts.
After a 5 hour river boat trip the next day (we sat on the roof for the whole trip cause it's a death trap if the boat sinks --which they do--and you're inside), I wasn't feeling so good.
I spent the next 9 hours experiencing "Extended Liquid Expulsion" which had me staring into the spokes of our ceiling fan and the very bowels of our toilet wishing for better days. Agonizing. I figured it was either the Pork Crepes or the Cockroach which did me in. We consider ourselves lucky however, that in two major trips to Asia and eating lots of street food and sketchy restaurant food that this is the only sickness either one of us has ever had.
Mom was a champ and sat by my side murmuring encouragement to me and letting me hold the remote control for the t.v. whenever I had just finished running to the bathroom to puke my brains out.
What better way to recover from a day of food poisoning and lingering nausea than to visit the Killing Fields and a museum dedicated to Genocide. Tough day. I have so much to say about the incredible resilience of the Cambodian people and their ability to look forward with positivity and tenacity. We were brought down incredibly by the sight of the fields where 9,000 men, women, and children's bodies were bludgeoned to death and the Tuol Sleng museum where nearly 14,000 Cambodians were tortured and eventually sent to their deaths.
The Khmer Rouge regime, headed by Pol Pot, was one of the nastiest and brutal governments that the modern world has known. The genocide of their people (anywhere from 1-3 million Cambodians were killed between 1975-1979) rivals and sometimes eclipses the Holocaust and the genocides that have taken place throughout the past century. I look forward to being able to share more history with you all later this winter.
We've arrived in Bangkok and have become immersed in the backpacker culture of the Khao San Road. This morning we feasted on a bowl of black sticky rice with warm coconut milk, fresh mangoes, bananas and toasted sesame seeds. Another bowl of noodles with vegetables and peanut curry sauce. Life is rough. We've explored local temples but have really focused on the important element of this last phase of our trip: shopping.
I want to say that Mother has been the penultimate travelling companion, friend, sister, and mother to me on this great adventure. From Everest Base Camp at 18,000 feet to the sweltering tropics of the Khmer Empire Temples of Cambodia, we've done what we came here to do. Enjoy ourselves, challenge ourselves, learn a little bit along the way, take a heck of a lot of photos for slideshows for you all!, and continue to love each other as deeply as we do now.
I want to add that so many of these stories and the photos we've taken wouldn't be worth it at all if I didn't have you all to share them with when we return. The thought of more slideshows is what drives my camera and the thoughts of sharing these stories and these experiences with all of you is what fills my heart on so many occasions during this journey.
We hope you are all well and we can't wait to be home again and share all of this. We're comin' home!
See you all soon!
Thursday, October 17, 2002
"Cockroaches In Cambodia"
Wednesday, October 09, 2002
"Trek to Everest Base Camp, Khumbu Region"
Thursday, October 17th, 2002
Second trip to Nepal: Letter Two
Greetings and salutations from Kathmandu-
Mom and I are alive and well...the Maoists haven't gotten us yet! We've returned safely to Kathmandu and feel rather pumped from our 13-day trek to 18,000 feet, the base of Everest Base Camp.
We've taken our first real showers after two weeks, our legs are feeling fully pumped, and our lungs are super-bionic with oxygen-enriched blood from being at high-altitude for an extended period.
After taking a twin-otter plane to a small Sherpa town in the foothills of the Himalayas, we hired two porters to help with our equipment load (I'm carrying two cameras, a tripod, several filters, lenses, and 40 rolls of film) which included full winter gear (down jackets, gortex, boots, long underwear) and our personal items.
We'd been told that although there's a Maoist problem, no trekkers have been targeted yet. (though it seems inevitable some will be in the wrong place at the wrong time sooner or later). The Maoists are renegade rural Nepalis who are fed up with a corrupt govt. that denies them basic services like clean water, education, and other democratic stuff like that. They bomb police stations and are rather rude to the army as well. There are also "Fake-Maoists" which only adds to the confusion. These "Fakes" are really thugs that sometimes hit up trekkers for money under the guise of being Maoists. They're not. They're just looking for a cheap way towards more "chang" (the Nepali home brew) and an unlimited supply of "Dahl Baht" (the Nepali dish of lentils, rice, and curry).
So Maoists aside, there aren't too many problems with the Everest trek which we were attempting, except altitude sickness and the occasional gastro-intestinal irritations...always an inevitability in the third world. Inescapable.
The Everest trek covers the most breathtaking scenery you could ever imagine. Steep pine forests plummeting dramatically into raging, glacial fed rivers. Tiny villages etched along mountainsides like swiss villages. High suspension bridges spanning lonely, wind-swept canyons, tattered prayer flags blowing in the wind...sending Buddhist prayers into the skies above. Highland pastures of lush grasses and grazing yaks. Tiny farms with fairy-tale like heads of cabbages, spinach, potatoes right out of Hobbit-ville. Handsome Tibetan-looking men and woman dressed in vivid waist wraps wearing turquoise and coral jewelry.
We spent our days learning the uphill mantra: Nepal has 6 directions instead of 4: North, South, East, West, UP and DOWN. We'd pop ibuprofen at night and down litres of tang-flavored iodine water (disinfected to keep off the bugs) in order to tackle the next day.
As we marched further into the Himalayas, we'd encounter yak trains decorated in red Tibetan sashes and chiming bells as they walked by with loads of rice, sugar, and kerosene. At a highland monastery perched rather inconveniently at the very top of a mountain (around 12,000 feet) we sat cross-legged on hardwood floors listening to young Buddhist monks chanting centuries old songs. Giant cymbals and gongs were rung, echoing for miles through the surrounding valley.
While trekking in Nepal everything has a smell. Mostly its yak dung and the wind. If you're lucky you might get a good whiff of incense in the morning (if you're at a nice lodge). You're amazed by the graciousness of Nepalis. Barefoot men carry loads of 80 plus pounds up mountainsides for as little as a couple dollars a day. Every villager you pass is ready with a warm smile and a "Namaste" and a few words perhaps in English.
Mom and I have decided it takes several trips to Nepal to really understand it. Nepal has layers, many layers. It's complex and mysterious and wonderful.
On one of the most euphoric points of our trip, we made it to the glacial valley and cluster of buildings called "Gorak Shep," located near the base of Everest and Llotse at around 17,000 feet. We saw a woman from Hong Kong get so sick from the altitude that she couldn't walk or talk, she barely remembered her name. Altitude can kill people rapidly if they're dehydrated and exposed or simply, if they ascend to rapidly. You can develop cerebral or pulmonary edema and die within hours. This particular woman was carried out on her guide's back across jagged glacial moraine for lower ground. He hoped she'd remain conscious until they could descend a couple thousand feet.
From Gorak Shep, mom and I hiked for several very slow excruciating hours to the Everest Base Camp at 17,500 feet. Our bodies were in the process of creating more red blood cells enriched with oxygen to make up for the paucity of it at altitude. Every step you take is an effort. Dehydration is a danger in the icy wind. You develop peculiar ailments. I couldn't stop sneezing for three days. Mom couldn't stop talking about chocolate and she refused to take off her "Oscar the Grouch" Sesame Street earmuffs, even when we were inside from the cold.
We reached the Everest Base Camp and were welcomed by the Brazilian Climbing Expedition which will attempt to Summit the highest mountain on earth in a matter of mere days. Base camp is skeletal at best. A cluster of tents scrapped together on top of a glacier in an alpine desert of rock and snow. Every now and then you hear some small explosions and and see rockslides plummeting into small glacial lakes. The glacier is alive and always moving. The base camp is a place where humans can visit but they can't stay. It's a graveyard of ice and snow and geologic forces.
At sunrise we climbed to 18,000 feet to watch the sunrise over the Himalayas and to catch a glimpse of Everest. Everest is elusive, always hidden behind clouds or Llotse or strange weather patterns which only add to its omniscious presence. The sky turned an electric blue and the clouds were a cotton candy pink. Our fingers and toes were mind-numbing cold in this subzero temperature. A giant avalanched erupted on the face of Llotse right beside Everest...an incredibly beautiful display of such awesome power...an explosion which wiped out a good section of its south face and which we were thankful we were far from.
One by one, each mountain was illuminated in the morning's amber light. Except one spot were a prism occured. A triangle of rainbow light just to the left of Llotse that grew and shifted and warped and hinted at something majestic and ethereal. The clouds melted away until only the rainbow crescent edged the mountain below. The summit of Everest appeared and the porters began jumping up and down. "you very lucky! you very lucky women! people come for many days and never see! they never see!"
Even the dogs with us were excited, leaping and snarling and rolling in the snow. We just stood there in awe until the pain in our toes and fingers was unbearable and I began weighing the choice: hot chocolate and all my digits or more Everest views and frostbite.
I chose the former.
We made our way down to 17,000 feet and warmed ourselves by the yak dung fire.
Only a week later, we're back in the "civilization" of Kathmandu surrounded by the endless chaos of rickshaws, minivans, beggars, trekkers, internet cafes, and carpet dealers.
I hope when we return that some of the slides come out and we can do this experience some justice and share just a little of what we've experienced with you all!
We're blown over with the graciousness of the Nepalis here, their absolute material poverty compared with ours but their absolute determination to live good lives, to love each other fully, and to do the best for themselves as they possibly can.
there are no words.
This morning our porter, Pasang, presented us with white scarves, or 'pujas,' as a tribute to our friendship and the end of the trek. It was an honor coming from a Nepali and the perfect finale to a trek that actually topped the trek last year.