In case anyone is still checking this blog, I hope the past months have been really good to you. 🙂
In case anyone is still checking this blog, I hope the past months have been really good to you. 🙂
And for my mental record, here is the verbal account of further snowy adventures in Ushuaia.
We got back from dog sledding and snow shoeing. High from the cold, beauty and exercise, we popped happily into our favorite café in town where I foolishly downed a Bailey’s-laced coffee. This pushed my sensibilities over the edge of a mountain, so when Roman suggested we forget the insane cost and just jump at the chance of skiing/snow boarding at the end of the world (for goodness’ sake!!), I was just silly enough to enthusiastically gush: yes, absolutely! I am up for it! How could we not??
We ventured forth to make arrangements and rent equipment for the next day – our last in Ushuaia.
We staggered forth from the rental shop to our hotel. I felt increasingly sober AND klutzy with each step in the cold winter air and my mind began to wander towards all the things I had wanted to do while still in town plus my last two experiences on the pistes.
The first was as a child, where I spent an endless miserable afternoon trudging duck like up a slope with what felt like lead skis attached to my feet while developing a raging fever. Strike one against winter sport.
The second encounter was more recent. Roman is a snow boarder and had convinced me to overcome my childhood misgivings and give his favorite winter sport a go. This was after I’d already lived in Switzerland for many years without ever visiting the mountains at winter – a feat I had found very sensible and was quite proud of. I gave in to his coaxing and even started boasting around the office about how we were taking a week off at a ski resort and I was going to learn how to snow board, just watch me!
So children, let this be a lesson about hubris, because I didn’t even make it through the first day.
My instructor was a sweet lady and we were taking it slowly, learning how to stand and slide on the board on a flat bit of snow, not even on the bunny slope yet. I made one stupid move and down I went – crack! – right onto my sacrum. The wind was knocked out of me and my eyes teared up as I lay there, stunned, staring at the sky. I got up and tried to get on with the lesson but by the time Roman and I had left the slopes for the après ski beer, it was clear that something was wrong – I couldn’t stand to sit down, even for a reviving beer.
I spent the rest of my ski-vacation-week moving around our rented flat like an arthritic 100-year-old woman, lying on my stomach reading magazines and books and trying to nurse my bruised ego. The worst was showing up at work the next week, having to tell everyone the story AND stand at my desk, because it was another week or so before I could sit properly again. 😛
So, all these fond memories were swirling through my head as I tried not to drop my ski poles (still too soon for snow boarding!) or impale Roman or myself on my skis. By the time we made it to our hotel room, I was having a full-blown freak out. I did my best to contain it, but it was still there when I woke up in the morning as we boarded the bus to take us to the slopes. Boy was I a miserable cow! I buried my head in Roman’s shoulder and tried to sleep until we arrived, hoping for oblivion and that this whole thing was just a bad dream I could still wake up from.
But then we were there, having a coffee, buying our lift tickets and signing me up for an afternoon class. Roman offered to stay with and comfort me until the instructor showed up but I thought there was no point as I was inconsolable and I wanted at least one of us to have a good time. I sent him on his way and proceeded to wait till it was time for class, experiencing the definition of a bad head space:
Suddenly all the people around me looked 20 times more glamorous, sophisticated, at ease and graceful. I, by contrast, felt like I was stomping around like an elephant in a tea shop. I felt ugly and awkward and out of place, lurching around in my massive ski boots. I already had lost complete feeling in my feet and was getting colder and more miserable by the minute. I was convinced I was going to injure myself again and started fantasizing about skipping class, going back down the mountain to where my comfy Ugg boots were waiting, and drinking beer all afternoon while Roman boarded. I decided my teacher was going to be some arrogant guy who only spoke Spanish, and I started working on phrases in my head with my rudimentary vocab about how I was scared, not feeling well, currently hating my boyfriend for “convincing” me to go through with this, etc.
I’d worked myself up to a point where tears were actually welling in my eyes when this little sprite of a girl in oversized ski gear, a wild pony tale on the top of her head, a button nose and apple red cheeks came up and kissed my cheek (as Argentinians do with friends), introduced herself as Dana, my ski instructor, and immediately, effectively washed away all my fears with the strength of her warmth, ease and down-to-earth presence.
I don’t even know how she did it but clearly she is a charmed ski instructor because before I knew it, I was swishing my way down gentle hills, taking turns, laughing out loud at the rush and yes, even ENJOYING myself. Miracle worker.
She is ten years my junior, has been competing in ski competitions around the world for well more than half her young life, is from Ushuaia and LOVES the place, loves the sport, loves what she is doing. And that love and passion was so strong that I couldn’t help but focus on that instead of all those cobwebby fears I’d spun in my head.
We chatted about all sorts of things and I even got to practice some of my Spanish, and in between that, she taught me the basics of skiing. She also reminded me to stop, to breath and look around at all the beauty – the light coming through the criss-crossing patterns of black, back lit tree branches. The stunning, wide view over the mountains and valleys. The color the sky turned as the sun began to get low. This is the power of a true, passionate teacher.
So, thank you Dana, for not only helping me to overcome a fear, but transforming it into something really joyful – a beautiful memory from our last day in Argentina!
Obviously left the camera at the hotel for this day too, but here are some pics Roman took with his phone
Being on the road again after the three-month break in the States with my family has got me thinking.
If you don’t count the visit with my family as being home (which it is and it isn’t, since home for me for nearly six years prior to that had been Switzerland, and living with your parents temporarily isn’t the same as having your own home, even if you DO feel wonderfully at home with them and in your childhood house as I luckily do.), I’ve been homeless and traveling for a year and 8 ½ months; Roman’s been away from Switzerland three weeks shy of that. Kinda crazy.
It’s feeling totally normal and wonderful and great to be traveling again. Australia, I have to say, is a fantastic country to get back in the saddle with after the comforts of my parents’ house. No language barriers like in Asia and thus far the people are tremendously friendly and it’s been drop dead gorgeous. But I digress.
I’ve been catching some of the thoughts that float from time to time through my mind since we’ve been on the move again and I’m wondering if travel – this sort of travel anyhow – isn’t making me into a slightly worse person. You always hear that travel broadens your perspective of the world but I am wondering about the areas where things might be getting more narrow.
This first came to my attention in Sydney, where we met up with some friends of ours.
The couple we met worked at the same company I did in Switzerland. They quit around the same time Roman and I did to do an extended trip around the world, just like us. We traveled to different places, but some themes were the same. One was how it’s often difficult to talk about the trip with “the folks back home”. We loved being able to “talk shop” with fellow travelers, we oohed and ahhed as we compared itineraries and travel experiences in a way that we would never inflict on most people.
Another friend was an awesome guy we had met and hung out with in India over a few days in Varanasi and one super dinner in Delhi. We met for drinks and dinner and although we caught up about life in general, we also spent a lot of time collectively missing and loving India. Between the good memories, wonderful conversation and delicious wine, I felt like I was floating on clouds by the end of the evening, basking in the goodness of what was and what had been.
These get-togethers were fantastic, but they made me ponder about shared experiences and if my/our chances of sharing about some of the places we’ve been and things we have done have grown narrower as we’ve spread ourselves more widely across this big planet.
And then I realized that maybe even having thoughts like this make me into a wanker. Like, who has these kind of problems/musings??
Let me demonstrate. Here are some of the ways that this kind of travel is ruining me.
So, is travel opening my eyes, heart and stomach to big, wonderful, exciting world? Yes! Is it turning me into a snob and possibly a jerk and/or wanker? Yes to the first and quite possibly to the second. Am I ok with this? If being ok with it means we get to keep traveling, I think I am. 😉
The holidays are now behind us and we are well and fully landed in the New Year over here in Connecticut. It’s still feeling somewhat surreal but it’s helping that things are quieting down a bit. Only now is it starting to really sink in that I am here with Roman in my hometown.
It’s too early for me to be able to deliver news about our onward plans for anyone who might be curious. 🙂 (I’m curious too in fact!) For now I’m mostly focusing on savoring the comforts of home:
– It’s a great feeling not to have to pack up my bag every few days/every week. I have shelves in my old room where my clothes can stay put for now and that is awesome.
– I love that my pillow smells like me.
– Western plumbing is still blowing my mind and I have to remind myself at least once a day that I can put toilet paper into the toilet bowl over here.
– My mom has been really generous with my use of her kitchen; we even have figured out how to cook two different things simultaneously without getting in each other’s way. I am loving being able to cook my own food again, and it’s total comfort to cook with my mom and better yet to be treated to her cooking.
– I can’t get enough Martin hugs!! Hugs from my nephew are a rare but oh-so-deliciously-wonderful-and-precious thing.
– It’s great having time to talk with my grandma Jackie. At 90 she’s more awesome than ever!
– Although Stamford has changed a lot since I’ve lived here and there’s loads of new restaurants and shops, etc., it’s still a nice feeling to leave the house (instead of a hotel) and already know where I’m going without having to study a Lonely Planet map first.
– Same goes for being able to take an aimless walk with Roman without having to worry about finding our way back to the hotel.
– The best feeling is falling asleep all cozy warm under layers of my mother’s home-made blankets and quilts while the freezing winter air creeps in through the cracked-open window – I am loving the New England winter weather after all the tropical heat in the Philippines. All I need is some snow!! 🙂
This blog has fallen silent yet again but for a good reason. After what felt like an infinite number of mediocre plane movies and meals and too many hours to count I arrived in New York on Sunday. I’d barely been on the ground before I checked my email and got a huge surprise.
If you keep track of Roman’s blog (and can read German), you already know that he had a change of heart, decided he needs a break, and booked the first flight he could from Kuala Lumpur to the States!
I picked him up from the airport on Wednesday and it’s still feeling totally surreal and miraculous and wonderful that after all these months of travel in exotic lands, we are both HERE in my childhood home, back with my family as though we’d been here all along. 🙂
In my earlier post I wrote about being greedy and loving or wanting too many things. Now I feel like the luckiest girl ever because I get to have Christmas (my favorite holiday!) with all my favorite people! It’s not an either/or situation and it’s already feeling like the best Christmas ever! 😀 I’m feeling tremendously grateful. 🙂
Now that my brain is just about adjusted to the EST time zone and the fact that Roman is actually here, I’ll try to get going on my China posts again. And in the mean time, happy holidays to everyone from one very happy girl! 🙂
It’s my last day in the Philippines today!
The past week and a half here has been both rough and wonderful. The tropical flu that I caught really knocked the stuffing out of me. I haven’t been that deliriously, miserably sick in a while.
Even now I’m still not feeling 100% but I’m so much better and thankfully well enough to travel.
I’m grateful too that I was well enough on our last full day in Dauin to finally go diving at Apo Island – the whole reason we came to Negros in the first place. It happened to be my birthday that day 😉 and so feeling well again, being able to eat and enjoy food and going for three super dives was especially wonderful and I felt especially grateful!
Really I have loved the Philippines but somehow I also feel a bit beat up here.
I fell on the boat that last day at Dauin (again – this is after nearly falling overboard back in Popototan) and really hurt my toe. It’s currently turning all sorts of black and blue but at least I can walk now with not much problem.
I’m in Cebu now and my stomach is still complaining about some really sub-par Thai food we ate two days ago. (Gross.) I’m getting a cold sore on my lip and my skin (probably responding to all the crap food I’ve been eating?) is breaking out like crazy.
On the emotional side, I’ve got a bit of the travel blues. (I may have caught that from Roman.)
I feel like if I have to search for another hotel online any time soon I may start screaming and ripping my hair out. I’m usually really good with long flights and lots of travel, but I have a huge trip coming up tomorrow morning and, having spent most of the last week bored in bed, I am actually rather dreading all those hours of airport/airplane limbo.
The good news is the reward for the two days’ worth of travel is going to be exactly what I need: Home.
I’m traveling to the States to be with my family for Christmas, and at the moment as much as I’m dreading the trip I’m SOOOO excited to see them all so soon. Christmas is my FAVORITE holiday and it’s been years since I’ve been able to spend it with them. It’ll also be my first Christmas with my nephew Martin, so this is really special for me.
And I’ll be getting plenty of things to counteract the effect of the travel blues: My own bed (my same totally comfy and comforting old twin bed from my childhood), my parents’ clean and cozy and familiar home, my mom’s amazingly good cooking and best of all, lots of time with family and friends. My heart is starting to feel better just thinking about it.
On the down side, I’ll be celebrating the holidays without Roman. He doesn’t want to break the travel momentum; I couldn’t convince him to come with me (and there’s no way he could get away with visiting MY family in the States without also visiting HIS family in Switzerland, which would get complicated…).
I had to say goodbye to him today – he’s already flown on to Malaysia – and it was awful. I know with my brain that everything’s fine; the time apart will pass quickly and I’ll be so happy with my family, but as much as my head gets it, my heart couldn’t and I spent today fighting back tears. Saying goodbye just never gets easier.
(I wonder if on some level I’m still traumatized from the time early in our relationship when I got transferred to London for my job, and we spent six months flying back and forth to visit each other. I was pretty miserable and depressed in London, and that period of time involved a lot of tearful airport goodbyes.)
Maybe it was also extra tough because this is a big goodbye in some ways. Roman will travel in Malaysia and Indonesia while I’m home. Our plans beyond that are totally unformed at the moment. I don’t know exactly where he will be when, so I don’t know where I will be meeting him. I’m pretty sure this is my goodbye to Asia as well; likely is that I’ll meet him in Australia or New Zealand next, although I don’t know when precisely that might be. It’s kind of a funny feeling to leave things so vague – “goodbye love, I’ll see you on some continent at some unknown point in the future”. And finishing Asia… Well, I don’t know what the rest of our trip will look like, but this is certainly at least a significant chunk of it done for me now. Which is interesting to say the least.
I wonder too how I’ll feel at the end of my time at home. I can’t imagine those goodbyes will be any easier than today’s… Roman often accuses me of being greedy and I will readily admit that it’s contradictory – I miss home and family even as I love traveling and exploring the world. But I’m ok with that. I’d rather feel this heartache because I love too many things, I’d rather struggle to try to fit conflicting things (life on the road, life with the people I love who are often on different continents than me), than… well, than not have that pain and struggle, I guess.
Anyhow, for now I will focus on the positive, which is that I am soon going to have the magic of Christmas with my family, just in time to sooth my travel blues. And that at some point after the holidays, Roman and I will get to meet up somewhere out there in this big, incredible world. And I will try not to think about the three flights in two days and the fact that I have to get up for the first one in a few hours… 😉
I can’t believe our time in China is about to end! As of today we’ve been here for eight whole weeks. Tomorrow we fly to Taiwan, where we’ll be visiting a high school friend of mine who I haven’t seen in ages. So excited!
You may have noticed that during these past two months the majority of my posts have concerned the ONE week we spent in Xinjiang. I will be posting plenty about the rest of our time in China but if it’s not already obvious, I totally fell for Xinjiang.
Looking back, I realize I am heavily predisposed to like the place. We’ve been traveling in Asia for a long time now. Xinjiang is not eastern or southeastern Asia; it’s central Asia and being there I could feel its long reaching roots stretching out across the expanse to touch the edges of eastern Europe. This is probably just a flight of fancy, but it made me feel closer to Europe than I have in ages and given how much I love my second home, this made me happy. 🙂
This also might be just me, but I did feel some echos of Eastern Europe and gypsy culture in some of the details of the place. Thanks to Roman (who is half Serbian) I am a huge Kusturica and Bregovic fan, and for some reason something about gypsy style has appealed to me for as long as I can remember. Many people we passed on the streets looked like they could have just stepped out of a Kusturica film; the way women dressed (especially in Tashkurgan) – stripy stockings, glittery heels, ruffles, layers, red, red, red – was like something out of a fantastical fairy tale. For the aesthetics alone I love Xinjiang.
I also have a big affinity for Muslim cultures. My first two Muslim friends in my life, Yasmin and Kumayl, introduced me to the beauty of this religion (thank you both!) and so the presence of this religion is another thing that produces an automatic happy response in me. I also love unlikely cultural mixes, and Xinjiang is about as mongrel as you can get, and fascinating for it. I mean, how many places can you visit where the signs will be in Chinese, Arabic, Roman and Cyrillic characters?? Awesome.
Then there is the landscape. For sheer drama and beauty, I’m hard pressed to think of a place we’ve been on this trip whose nature can compete with that of Xinjiang. And we’ve been to some incredibly beautiful places. Small caveat though – I am a mountain girl at heart. I grew up with my mother’s stories of idyllic childhood in Liechtenstein, I was weaned on Heidi and my vacations as a girl nearly all involved the alps. So mountains automatically make me happy too – and boy were those Xinjiang mountains friggin’ amazing. It makes me sad to think of the mining projects that are and probably will take place there, of the scars that will be inflicted on all that beauty.
Lastly, I am a big sucker for underdogs. There is a lot I don’t know about the situation in Xinjiang, and I don’t want to discount the point of view of the Han Chinese living and working there. But all the literature I could find out about the place cast the Uyghur and other ethnic minorities of the province as the being clearly on the losing side of the equation as progress and development comes to Xinjiang. Certainly the Uyghurs we talked to echoed this sentiment.
One woman explained how controlled their movements were. Where other people in China pay RMB 200 (around USD 30) for a passport, Uyghurs have to pay nearly 1000 times that price, something few people can afford. For her, travel outside of China is a distant dream.
Another man talked about the difficulties of running his business. He was friends with many Chinese in the area but he said that once a Chinese person started to make real money they would change; no longer consulting with others and doing what ever they wanted in their adopted homeland. The success of his business was bounded by the whims of the Chinese government and businesses in the area. “Like Tibetans, we are free to breathe the air…” He trailed off here, implying with a resigned shrug all that is not free to the minorities.
Our guide seemed to harbor strong feelings on the subject; he nervously refused to translate at one point when I wanted to ask locals their views on the increasing presence of Chinese farmers in the area, but at other times his own opinions would come through. I remember him poetically observing at one point “(Spoken) Chinese always sounds like someone arguing and the letters look like broken houses”…
These are just a few small vignettes; I realize that after a week and a bit of Internet research I still have a lot to learn about Xinjiang. But three months ago I’d never even heard of it and I’m so happy that I discovered this place at all!
So thanks for indulging these numerous posts on the topic. Although we had one more stop within the province – Urumqi – I’m going to skip over this and push on to the rest of our trip in China. (Suffice to say, it’s no Kashgar.) I will do one more post though with general travel notes for anyone who might want to do their own trip to this incredible place.
Thank you Xinjiang!
I hope this blog is a testament to the amazingness of the adventure Roman and I are on, for which I am so grateful, but the fact of the matter is that this whole long-term travel thing is also really hard for me a lot of the time.
By nature I am greedy and often encompass, or burningly desire to encompass, both sides of many coins. In this case I am a marshmallow homebody who thirsts deeply for adventure and freedom and new horizons, or a grand adventurer whose heart yearns for the comforts of home and whose soul benefits from a peaceful, orderly life.
Going into the trip I was aware that we were going to have to give some things up and that this might not be easy but would probably be worthwhile. Things that provided structure, foundation, comfort, identity.
We are homeless, my belongings are stored with generous relatives on two different continents and I have no idea where my next home will be. I left the industry I’d spent the last eight years of my life pouring energy and myself into, assuming that I will now seek a new direction but having not the slightest inkling what that new direction might be.
In each new location we arrive at, I find myself seeking answers and directions in my surroundings for everything from how I should adjust myself to fit in to breadcrumbs of wisdom or guidance that might lead me to a path I can recognize, something to get me from the past to the future in my life with some sense that I am heading in the right direction. I would seek external things to help build the feeling of identity I was craving. “Maybe if I get rid of THIS thing I am carrying and buy THAT new piece of clothing I will find my story. Maybe something in THIS culture will help me make sense of myself. Maybe if I can figure out THIS new trick to getting Zen about travel, I will feel at peace.” And so on and so forth…
I find the borders of the self grow fluid and my inner landscape morphing in reflection of my external environment so often. Sometimes the constant shifts get to be too much and I feel like I don’t even recognize my own life or myself any more.
And there are the normal travel challenges too – grungy hotels, unhealthy food, uncomfortable hours of travel, cultural differences and adjustments, etc. And especially the challenge of feeling so far away from all my family and friends so much of the time.
These challenges do not in any way negate the wonderful things we have done and seen on the trip; the internal “process” can and does happen even as we are visiting amazing temples, enjoying new food, etc. Recognizing this has been helpful and I have been doing a lot of work to find ways to be healthier and feel more grounded as we travel. Finding more compassion for myself has been key.
The whole reason for this post though, is one other part of the puzzle that has helped immensely and for which I am so grateful.
Back in May I traveled to the States for three weeks. India had been absolutely incredible but also incredibly tough for me as I believe I was overwhelmed – I was struggling with identity issues described above and other things as well but was in too deep to recognize anything other than the fact that I felt awful a lot of the time, while adjusting to the fact that we’d just done this crazy thing of giving up our old lives for these massive unknowns. I was able to make some progress in Thailand and Myanmar, getting some mental perspective even as I remained emotionally overwhelmed and oftentimes numb.
I arrived home emotionally exhausted and terrified that in my detached state I would not be able to connect to or feel anything for my nephew, who I was going to meet for the first time.
What occurred when I got home though, was the miraculous grace of friends and family. Connecting with people who know and love me, who I know and love, transformed me over night. I felt grounded and relaxed in a way that I hadn’t in months. I felt like myself again. The time with my friends and especially my family were nurturing and sustaining beyond what I could have expected or hoped for. And of course I fell totally in love with my nephew. I found myself returning to Asia with a sense of comfort. The connection I felt with the people I love came with me as I boarded that plane in New York.
Some of the glow has faded over the months as I let myself get pulled into fears and doubts and other distractions, but I find that when I stop myself and place the people I love in my heart, take a moment to remember that those relationships are real or, even more miraculously, actually act and reach out to people and ask for support, I am comforted by something so much more substantial than anything my spinning intellect may try to concoct.
My aunt Gertrud passed away earlier this week. She was sick already as we were leaving and although we didn’t know at the time that it was definitely terminal, the prognosis was not good even then. An avid traveler during her life, she was the most staunch supporter of our decision to undertake this endeavor of a world trip. Sharing with her the amazing places we have been has been a large part of my motivation for keeping this on-line journal and she has been on my mind so often as we’ve been exploring some place new and incredible.
My mother was able to visit her in her last week of life. She shared with me that the thing Gertrud was sad about as she faced death was leaving behind the people she loved. But she took comfort in the hope that she might be reunited with other loved ones who have already passed.
This trip has challenged me as I have tried to build myself up, comfort myself, find myself with places, adventures, things. I’ve shifted the items of my luggage – clothing, jewelry, souvenirs – so many times, carried so many expectations and assumptions that were regularly and inevitably shattered, built up endless plans and schemes that I just ended up taking apart again in my quest to find myself, figure everything out and create “home on the road”. And none of it has gotten me any further.
At the end of the day, the only thing that’s made any emotional sense and the only thing that I KNOW I want to and CAN take with me is the love I have for the people in my life.
So I want to say thank you to the dear friends and family that fill my heart. You motivate and nurture and sustain me and I am so grateful to you. I hope you know who you are and I hope even more that you know how much I love you.
And I want to say thank you to Gertrud. Your suffering has left me full of doubts and questions; I know that I know nothing but I HOPE with all my heart that you have found peace now. Your life and your incredible attitude towards it have left me inspired and in awe. I will carry you in my heart for the rest of this trip and for always.
I’ve now been on the road for one whole year! Unbelievable but true! I’ve put together some videos to celebrate and to help me get my head around just how much we’ve seen and done these past 365 days. 🙂 Enjoy!
Writing this from Hong Kong, our time in Cambodia already feels very distant. I’d thought I would have written my farewell post to Cambodia by now, but actually maybe it’s better this way.
“Good luck for you”
Our visit to Cambodia was intense for me. I’d done more pre-arrival research for it than for any of the other places we’ve been so far and thus came in with a lot on my mind to begin with. For reasons still not clear to me, I had bigger emotional reactions to things we experienced in Cambodia. The country seemed to contain more extremes than the other places we’d been – extreme poverty and extreme power, the presence of deep, jagged tragedy s well as incredible and pure beauty.
(By way of contrast, I’d describe India as having extremes too, but it has a much fuller spectrum: there is so much filling the space between light and dark there.)
After the likes of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, Cambodia and Cambodians definitely had a tougher edge.
I witnessed a lot more rough housing between kids and even adults. Play seemed to involved a lot more hitting, pushing and pulling than we’d seen anywhere and I even got hit – with a good amount of force but without any malice – by one boy in Battambang who was exuberant about the photos I took of him and his friends and wanted me to take more. It didn’t bother me at all, but it was something I could never imagine happening in the countries we’d been to before Cambodia.
One’s overall impression of a place is subject in part to completely random encounters and occurences. While we were in Cambodia, we happened upon four different funerals. These take place every day all over the world but it was striking to me that we kept crossing paths with funeral processions and ceremonies. The last place we had witnessed anything like this had been in Varanasi, where it’s simply a part of being in that city.
It didn’t feel like a morbid or depressing thing, but it left me with the feeling that death is very much present in Cambodia. While the reign of the Khmer Rouge is over, that recent history and all that happened off the back of that regime’s time in power remains a tangible presence in the country and its people.
It was rare for us to speak to people who had been adults during that time, but we did have more opportunity to talk to people from our generation. Each had a substantial list of relatives who had been lost during that dark period. When they would share this information with us, it pretty consistently had an air of deep, inherited grief combined with total matter-of-factness and acceptance – an interesting combination.
I felt currents of this sort of energy – deep passion as well as fatigued resignation – in other interactions we had. For example with drivers and guides who would have the chance to make really good money for a week or two – if they were the lucky one that a tourist would pick to hire out of the dozens of men all jostling to offer the same service.
Something small that I noticed everywhere we went in the country was that to close an interaction with us, people wouldn’t say “Thank you” or “Have a nice day” but “Good luck for you!”.
In a country where death, poverty and lack of opportunity are accepted and expected, perhaps the best one can hope for is the rare and good fortune to escape these circumstances – or just the luck to be that one tuk tuk driver that bags the generous tourist who tips so well that he and his family can eat for a month.
If I’d written this a month ago, that might be the note that I’d have ended on. Time and contrast can be useful things though and getting some distance from the intensity of Cambodia plus some perspective thanks to our experiences in Vietnam, the strong reactions and emotions I felt while in Cambodia are softening into a more steady gratitude and affection for the country and its people.
Though I went in with far fewer expectations and pre-conceptions about Vietnam, I had a much harder time to connect with people and places there. I’ll write more about that in a separate post, but that experience has certainly tempered the way I’m thinking about our time in Cambodia.
The beauty of the place and of the people we had the chance to meet runs deep. The interactions we had with people – once the business side was agreed upon – were open and heartfelt. When I was first living in Switzerland, I read somewhere that the Swiss are like coconuts – tough to crack but sweet once you get on the inside. Maybe Cambodians are like rambutan fruit; a bit spiky and rough but also beautiful and colorful and soft on the inside. 🙂
On a slightly different subject, the list of locations visited in Cambodia is relatively short, compared to other places we’ve been. We’re conscious that, as much as we’d often love to, we can’t spend infinite amounts of time in each country we visit. We decided to experiment, choosing fewer stops in Cambodia but hoping that having a bit of time in each would still allow us to get a good feel for the country. In the end the balance of our time got tipped towards Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Both places were fascinating, thought-provoking and clearly essential to any visit to Cambodia.
But I feel strongly that getting off the typical tourist spots and seeing Kratie, Kampong Chhnang and Battambang was equally vital. If I had to do it all over again, I’d probably try to spend even more time exploring towns and villages – although I’d also allow myself more than four days for Angkor as well. 🙂
Over all though, I think we managed to get a good mix into our month and a bit in Cambodia and I’m grateful for the chance to see all we did – even the less comfortable, more challenging parts.
One more random note – I stumbled upon a great blogger whose different perspectives on Cambodia were really interesting and helpful for me while were traveling there. Check her out if you want another perspective on the country. 🙂 http://summerinsea.wordpress.com/
Our Cambodia itinerary
|June 20||Kratie||Morhautdom Hotel|
|June 24||Phnom Penh||Golden Gate Hotel|
|July 3||Kampong Chhnang||Sovannphum Hotel|
|July 6||Battambang||Royal Hotel|
|July 9 – 22||Siem Reap||Angkor Pearl Hotel|