Friday, September 24, 2010

Travel & Blog Updates

Blog Updates

Hi folks!  If you've subscribed to this blog via email or RSS, you've probably noticed the flurry of posts today.

A few months ago, I struggled with what to write, how to write, whether I wanted to write at all...  and not just that, but also where to travel, how I wanted to travel, and heck, whether I wanted to be traveling at all!  But lately, things have been groovy.  I've realized that I would like to have a souvenir from this experience.  Since I hate shopping, my best idea is a photo album and a blog to go with it.

Here are a few new posts about old topics:

Paradise!  (Koh Tao, Thailand)
Malaysia?  What's in Malaysia?  (Malaysia, in general)
Bali Highlights  (Bali, Indonesia)

And here are a few new posts about a new topic:

Khmer Kitchen
Finding Mind Happiness in Siem Reap
8 Things I Love About Cambodia

Enjoy!  Or not, that's ok too.  :-)  Over the next few months, I imagine the posts will come on a quasi-regular basis, so I hope not to jam up your inbox/ feedreader again.  Look forward to a Southeast Asia wrap-up post in the next few days.

Also, this is my 100th post on this blog.  Holy guacamole, I talk a lot!

Edited to add:  Wowza, this blog is about to have its 1st birthday!  One year ago, I was setting up One Great Dewdrop.  A few days later, on October 1, 2009, I published the first post.  Time flies.

Travel Updates

Today is our last day in Cambodia.  Tomorrow, we'll spend the day traveling back to Bangkok.  We've got one day in Bangkok to see a few people and to run a few errands.  Then, on September 27th, Davo and I fly to...

"I'm looking forward to this" is a gentle understatement.  Pardon me for a moment, while I freak the f*** out.

Southeast Asia was intended as a convenient way to waste some time between the tramping season in New Zealand and the trekking season in Nepal.  If I am so honored as to see Everest with my own eyes, I might need to be carried out of the mountains, because I might go blind immediately.

To add icing to this sweet, sweet cake made of 100% pure awesome, Davo and I might have a few buddies joining us.  J, M, and C:  I'm looking at you.  Get your asses over here.

We'll be in Nepal for about ten weeks, from the last week of September through the first week of December.  From there, we're looking to spend some time in the Middle East.  The current plan is to spend 10-14 days in Turkey (Istanbul, Capadoccia, and somewhere in the southeast toward Iran and Syria (gasp! Axis of EVIL! Don't worry, Pops/ Bernie/ Jill, I will not drag Davo to either of these countries)) and 10-14 days in Israel (visiting Dave's family, Jerusalem, Dead Sea, Massada, and yes, a day trip to Palestine/ Occupied Territories/ whatever you want to call it--anyone have recommendations for a group with whom we could do this?).

The next adventure begins in late December/ early January:  we're coming back to The States (!).  The agenda:
  • a wedding (congratulations to Bernie (Dave's father) and Karen!);
  • a road trip to North Carolina (hi Mummers!  hi Pops!  hi Sisser!);
  • some quality time in Dave's hometown (hi Jill!  hi Grammy!  hi Rachel!  hi Eric!  Whoa, is that Maise?);
  • a long weekend in Ithaca (COE staff:  score us free wall pass, pretty please!  Ithaca friends:  where are we drinking/ crashing?!)
After January, am I headed abroad again?  Scheming and dreaming...  you'll just have to stay tuned to find out.  :-)

Khmer Kitchen

Cambodian, or Khmer, cooking might not be as famous as its cousin to the west (Thai), but I like it even more.

The staple food is white rice, which is eaten at every meal (and which I hate).  But there are many influences from abroad that blend together with a dash of Cambodian ingenuity into a fusion that's quite pleasing to the Western palate.  From Cambodian's French colonial past, you'll find baguettes and strong coffee for breakfast.  From Cambodia's cultural inheritance from India, you'll find delicious mild curries (kari).  And there are plenty of noodle dishes and soups, due to Cambodia's links with China.

Khmer specific dishes include amok, made with thin strips of leafy greens, and samlor ktiss, a coconut curry soup.  I like that chilis seem to be served on the side, so you can make the dish as hot as you want.  The Khmer cooks I've chatted with seem to take a very loose, creative approach to their cooking.  If they want to make their amok more like a curry, well, that's what they do.  If they want to serve something with a creative sauce, it's on the menu.  And this is in the restaurants where meals go for $1-3 dollars.  Definitely not the standard fried noodles/ fried rice.  Pretty neat.

We've been eating breakfast and lunch at Navy Kitchen, where a huge entree plus free rice, tea, and pineapple slices will set you back a whopping USD$2.  It's located on this block (sorry, no street name or address, that's not a common thing in this town).  Eat here.  You'll thank me.

View Larger Map

Davo and I asked if "Ma" ever gave cooking lessons. Her surly but sweet 21 year old son, Bati, said sure. I inquired about a price, and he said, "Whatever you think." Gotta love informality.

So one afternoon, she let us into her cramped kitchen.  The kitchen itself was about as dirty as you'd expect, but everything that touched food was surprisingly clean.  And did I mention that the kitchen was tiny?  With two tiny Cambodians and two enormous Westerners, we were tripping over each other.  Ma is fast in the kitchen, and we were always in the way.

Also, I need a lesson in the proper way to stir soup.

It was a fun little demonstration.  Ma deemed my effort at hot and sour soup "eh."   But I was proud.

Cambodian Hot & Sour Soup

  • ~1.5 cup water
  • ~1/2 boullion cube
  • 1 clove garlic, smashed
  • 1 in. piece of galangal, smashed
  • a few small pieces of ginger, julienned
  • handful of onion pieces
  • handful of carrot pieces
  • handful of tomato pieces
  • handful of pineapple pieces
  • handful of shredded dark leafy green
  • juice of 2 keffir limes
  • 1 egg
  • big spoon of sugar
  • salt, to taste
  • chili, if you want
  • tamarind paste, as much as you want
  • as a garnish, minced garlic fried in oil until brown

In a little pan, heat up the water to a boil with the boullion, garlic, ginger, and galangal.  Add onion and carrot, cook for a minute.  Add tomato, pineapple, leafy greens, stir for a minute.  Add juice of limes, egg, sugar, salt, tamarind paste, and chili.  Cook for a few more minutes.  Add the garlic as a garnish.  Simple!

Finding Mind Happiness in Siem Reap

I came to Siem Reap to avoid Bangkok and to see Angkor Archaeological Park, which can be done in a day or two. Somehow, I ended up staying close to two weeks.  Those nice plans to get into northern Thailand, where there's hiking and hills, went right out the window.  Oh well.  I like this corner of Cambodia.

Impressions of Siem Reap...  well, a few decades ago, the insane dictator Pol Pot was extremely effective in eliminating a large chunk of the population, something like a third of the population, including anyone literate.  The country has only been stable for the last twenty years.  Tourism is new--maybe ten years.  Perhaps due to this, there is noticeable desire here to have a good, stable life, and it's much stronger and more easily acknowledged here than anywhere else I've traveled.

At least two Cambodians have mentioned that they have problems sleeping at night due to the stress of their business, making money, providing for their families, and worrying about the future.  And this comes up in small talk!

The entire young generation desperately wants to learn English.  English proficiency is seen as an absolute prerequisite for securing a job, at least in the Siem Reap area.

One day, Dave and I wandered into a random temple compound outside the main tourist district.  A young monk waved us over, sat us down, and proceeded to spend the next 45 minutes talking to us about a project he's starting.  As a monk in the service of the community, Chea Yorn teaches English six days a week in both Siem Reap and the countryside.  Amazingly, he manages to do this with only an intermediate grasp of the language himself!  In his opinion, English is so crucial to the success of the youth in Cambodia that they simply must learn it, even if he has to teach every damn teenager himself.

In addition, Chea has hatched a plan to bring more income into rural areas by selecting two families to participate in a fruit and vegetable growing project.  Outside the rainy season, these rice-growing villages have no source of income.  If a few families could be taught how to grow fruits and vegetables, they could have income all year round, plus show other families these techniques.  The fruit trees could provide shade and fresh air in the hot, dusty villages.  He also has ideas for irrigation improvements.

Dave and I have visited Chea's evening classes a few times to help model native English pronunciations.  We're not in Siem Reap long enough to take over teaching any classes, but it seems our attendance and participation keeps the students engaged.  Every little bit helps, or so I tell myself.  I've noticed that other random people show up to watch the spectacle, so at least we're entertaining someone!  This temple isn't in the nicest part of town, but Dave and I walk back to our village after dark, and we feel safer walking out of the temple here than we'd feel in many parts of the United States.

The classes take place under the deck of the small building where Chea lives with three other monks and a few temple boys.  There's a dirty whiteboard, one marker, and a bunch of young Cambodians, ages 16 to 25.  One young woman adds the consonant "ssss" to the end of every word, which I find endearing.

Besides teaching English with only an intermediate grasp of the language himself, and hatching mad awesome plans to save Cambodia one family at a time, Chea gets up at 4 a.m, eats one meal a day, and participates in temple life as a monk.  He's 28 and has been a monk since age 15. 

But he's still part of this world.  An Australian gave him a laptop and a digital camera.  He's very quick to show off pictures of his students.  And, like everyone in my generation, he's on Facebook.

He was thinking of going to university, if he could get the money, or maybe just getting a job.  In this part of the world, it's common to become a monk for a few years in the teens or 20s to further education and to become a better member of society.  But maybe Chea will remain a monk.

In his words, "helping other people and we don't need to get anything back that is mind happiness. doing any good deed for each others it will make our mind peaceful. making our mind pure."

You said it, Chea.  This is 21st century Buddhism, and the answer to the questions of the retreat experience.

8 Things I Love About Cambodia

Women love to wear coordinated pajama sets during the day.  I haven't quite figured that one out, yet.

There are itty bitty Cambodia kitties everywhere, and they're all friendly.

I love biking everywhere.  And it's not just tourists--Cambodians bike, too.  Although they put multiple people on a bicycle, on the theory that:  (number of wheels) x 2.5 = maximum capacity of vehicle.

Calves are ridiculous looking and induce smiling.  Water buffalo are funny, too.

Bananas on a stick.  I rest my case.

Cambodian food rocks.  More on that here.

We've been here 10 or 11 days, mostly going about the business of life...  sleeping, eating, thinking, wandering.  Not a lot of sightseeing or vacation type activities.  Just living.  And in the process of everyday life, we got to know a few people.  It's reassuring and pleasant to recognize the same face every day.  We've eaten pretty much every meal in one of two restaurants.

Breakfast and lunch at Navy Kitchen:

Dinner at Five Sons:

And last, but certainly not least, is my friend that I greet every evening:

"Fat Frog," or as I like to say, "FAT FROG!!!" hangs out on the first floor of my guesthouse.  He stands next to a column of ants and snatches one after another, hoovering up the entire colony.  He's actually not that fat, but when he sees me, he puffs up.  Haha, I'm giggling just looking at his picture.

This are the little things that make me feel at home.  Silly routines, recognizing faces, noticing little details...  life on the road is just like life at home.  Same same...  but different.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Angkor Wat: The Macchu Picchu of Southeast Asia

A lifetime ago, when a copious supply of toilet paper was available in every bathroom and I didn't eat rice three times a day, i.e. when I was living in the United States and thinking about traveling, I assumed I would visit Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  I knew barely anything about Cambodia, only a little about the country's turbulent political history, nothing about the language or the cuisine, but I sure knew about Angkor Wat.  Everyone knows about Angkor Wat!  Even teenage boys--yeah, that's where Lara Croft did something-or-other in the Tomb Raider movies.  Angkor Wat is the Grand Canyon of the United States...  the Macchu Picchu of South America...  the Great Egyptian Pyramids of the African continent.

And here I am:

Hands down, my favorite parts of the park have been as much natural as manmade.  This is a tree-lovers paradise!  Various species of tree have grown on top of, into, and around various ruins.  The shapes are stunning:  a juxtaposition of man's straight lines with nature's curves.

As I wandered around, I reflected on impermanence.  When these monuments were created, they were so solid.  At the time, it must have seemed like the construction would last forever.  Even now, the ruins have an eternal feeling to them.  But everything that is built will eventually crumble.  Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not this millenium, but eventually it will change and fade away.  That's just the law of nature.

Speaking of nature, I also sensed how everything that arises from nature goes back to nature.  Humans borrowed these stones and piled them up.  Now, nature is taking back what was always hers.

On a less dreamy note, the problem with everyone knowing about Angkor Archaeological Park is, well, everyone knows about it!  After the jump, a little rant about mass tourism and a few suggestions for future visitors...

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

10 Days of Silence: Part I

"He wake up at 4 a.m."

"He sleep on wooden pillow."

"He walk everywhere."

Saffron-robed monk Tom Medhi described the personal habits of Ajhan Buddadasa, the founder of Suan Mokkh monestary, who was directly inspired by the example of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha. And apparently, because these guys liked to arise while even the roosters still slumber, the monestary bells woke me up at 3:58 a.m. for eleven consecutive nights.

The motto of Wat (Temple/ Monestary) Suan Mokkh in Southern Thailand is, "Live simply, aim high." And live simply did I. To participate in a retreat at the International Dhamma Hermitage, I agreed to the "Eight Trainings," which are:
  • Not to take away breath. This included not killing mosquitoes, which are ubiquitous and constant.
  • Not to take what is not freely given. Basically, do not steal, but also do not borrow without permission.
  • To keep my mind and body free from all sexual activity. Men and women were segregated nearly all the time.
  • Not to harm others by speech... by keeping totally silent for 10 days. In fact, silence in all activities was maintained as far as possible. I also avoided eye contact.
  • Not to harm my consciousness with intoxicating substances, not even caffeine.
  • Not to eat between afternoon and dawn of the next day. I ate two vegetarian meals, one at 8 a.m. and one at 12:30 p.m.
  • Not to dance, sing, play or listen to music, watch shows, or wear jewelry, cosmetics, or perfume. All distractions, including electronics like cameras and even personal journals, were given to the office for safe-keeping during the retreat. I did not read anything, except for the provided daily readings, and I did not write anything, except notes during talks.
  • Not to sleep or sit on luxurious beds or seats. So, I slept on a straw mat on a concrete sleeping platform, and used a wooden block for a pillow. I woke up at 4:00 a.m. I went to sleep at 9:30 a.m.
Why would anyone agree to these rules, plus dedicate between 5.5 and 9 hours per day solely to meditation?

10 Days of Silence: Part II

Either I was really lucky, or if reincarnation exists, I must have been a monastic in a past life; I didn't have much difficulty adapting to the schedule, the requirements, or the life. I did keep the Eight Trainings while I was at the retreat, and if anyone else was breaking the rules, they did so very discretely. I've heard of other retreats in which participant(s) were eating in their room, had kept a cell phone, or even had a visit from a significant other.

If you reading this, and thinking, "Whoa, this is crazy, I could never do this, why would anyone do this," take a look at the first section. We started with 25 men and 17 women; we ended with 20 men and 15 women. So, if over 80% lasted until the end, it couldn't have been that bad!

Here is a typical day, told from the first person perspective.

10 Days of Silence: Part III

I've explained why I wanted to participate in a meditation retreat, and what the day-to-day experience was like. But what will I take away from the experience?

The greatest immediate change I've noticed is that my outlook on traveling, and life, I suppose, has changed. To be honest, this change started a few weeks ago, but my time in retreat has pushed my thinking and feeling. I've got new reasons, fresh motivations, and refined perspectives regarding the nomadic life. I feel more relaxed and more confident. I think I have a better understanding of what's important, and worth getting upset about, and what is quite unimportant. I don't feel quite so persecuted by the oppressive heat, the bad vegetarian food, the dishonest touts, the boredom, the environmental destruction, the loss of culture, the hordes of tourists. Even crossing the border from Thailand to Cambodia, in which there were at least 4 separate attempts to scam us, felt like a silly game. It's like I've got a new pair of eyeglasses, and I'm seeing just a little bit clearer.

I hope to continue practicing meditation regularly. I've now seen the difference between the focused and unfocused mind, as well as the tranquil and disturbed mind. A peaceful, focused, balanced mind improves my personal outlook and happiness, as well as how I treat the people around me and the experiences I'm having. It's going to be hard work to maintain the practice, especially when I'm waking up in a different city every few days, which is quite stimulating (or frantic, even!). But I've practiced 20-45 minutes a day since leaving three days ago, so I'm off to a good start.

The greatest obstacle for me is boredom. When I was a kid, our neighbors had a shirt made for me that said, "What are we doing next?" I'm always thinking ahead, planning, working things through in my mind. I've realized that, to me, it's actually quite boring to experience the present. Most of the time, we're not doing anything particularly interesting. It's true—even if you're traveling somewhere exotic, the majority of your time, you're looking for food or accomodation or sitting in uncomfortable transport. And meditation specifically? It's just watching the same damn thing, over and over again: BORING!

For a 10-day silent retreat, you'd think I'd experience a lot of silence. But I, like most people, have a constant inner monologue, a weird collection of stories and observations I tell myself. Even when I was meditating, I never came to a totally silent place. Quieter than usual, yes; silent, no. Try to watch your breath for 5 minutes and I guarantee you'll see what I mean.