Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Lord's Prayer

I am a believer in balance. Thus, since I provided one of my grandfather's favorite prayers as the title of my previous post, I am going to give a shout out to my other grandfather, a very religious man, in this title. He forgot most of my birthdays, but he remembered when I went through confirmation and bought me a beautiful Bible. I still have it.

He loved the classic Lord's Prayer. Don't know it? Memorize it, so if you are ever invited to a Christian home, you won't look like an asshole if asked to lead a prayer. I am talking to you, Matt Coolidge.

Again, nothing to do with my blog. This blog is about the amazing people we met in PP.

In general, we found a lot of expats in Phnom Penh that had relocated there to start sustainable businesses that help local people. They had fallen in love with the city and dropped their lives at home to start new lives in a place with which they'd formed a deep connection.

Because of this condition, we found a lot of innovative organizations and friendly people.

Organizations we enjoyed:

First and foremost, there are a lot of great organizations in PP. Two of Matt and my favorites ended up being restaurants. Our favorite being a place called Friends that trained and hired people that were living on the street and taught them about the restaurant industry. The food was delicious and it was conveniently located next to the National Museum.

 

 

Picture of Friends from the street.


Additionally, Matt and I ate at Pteah Clare, which gives a portion of its proceeds to help get water filters into the slums. Unsanitary water is the number one reason for child fatalities in Cambodia.

Picture outside of Pteah Clare.

I also support an organization called Cambodian Children's Fund. I had learned about the organization from another really amazing Cambodian based organization called the Somaly Mam Foundation. Cambodian Children's Fund provides education and nourishment to children from some of Cambodia's most destitute communities. You can donate money, sponsor a child or sponsor a family. It Just depends on how much you can give.

I really like this organization for many reasons.

  • First, I think education is the most important instrument to get any child out of poverty.
  • Second, they primarily hire Khmer people. I think this is great because, they understand the culture these students are coming from and it gives locals really great jobs.
  • Third, they don't let just anyone into the building, you have to go through a lengthy process to volunteer. You also have to volunteer for at least a year. This ensures safety for the students both mentally and physically. Some of the kids have gone through a lot of mental turmoil and CCF wants the children's lives to be as stable as possible. If an orphanage just gladly accepts you into their facilities and asks for money, it is most like a scam.
  • Fourth, if you don't write to your students, you lose your students. Again, this comes down to the mental stability of the child. They want an adult to remain as a constant in their lives. They don't just want someone darting in and out.

Lucky for me, the students at CCF live in Phnom Penh, and sponsors are able to meet them - all meetings have a chaperone. My student's name is Reaksmey, which means brightness in Khmer. Matt and I took Reaksmey, her friend, and a chaperone to the Royal Palace one afternoon while I was there. They all spoke English super well, especially her chaperone, who was fairly young himself and had just finished college with a major in English. He was also a CCF alum.

Reaksmey was very shy, but her friend was hilarious. They talked about Phnom Penh, some of the dangers that annoyed them, mainly pick pocketing, as well as what they wanted to be when they grew up. Reaksmey started her first semester of college this year and her friend was in her second.

The group inside the Royal Palace. Reaksmey's eyes are closed, oops!

Although, there were a lot of uncomfortable silences (and the fact that the girls didn't speak to Matt), we had a good time and I was so happy that my student was well adjusted, bright and happy.

Our PP Cheers:

Our major hangout was a placed called Empire Theater. It was owned by a married couple (one Khmer and one British). They played all the latest releases (Matt and I saw American Hustle, Twelve Years A Slave, The Butler, Dallas Buyers Club, etc). After not watching movies for about three months, it was a breath of fresh air.

We would often hang out at the bar after a film and met a lot of the PP locals hanging out or folks coming through town. A few favorites and interesting characters we met:

  • Lee Ann - worked there and also taught. Had lived in Asia for five plus years. Originally from England, but spent most her childhood in Australia.
  • Enders - crazy Irishman who lived in Afghanistan and was a psychologist for men and women infected with HIV. He could have been the maddest person I have ever met. But, who wouldn't go mad with his job? Actually, I think you would have to be mad to take it. The night we met him he got kicked out of a bar for trying to do E. Needless to say, the owner of the bar was more mad at the douche-y red head that sold Enders the E than Enders. Enders was also mad at the red head as he had paid him a lot of money and ended up pocketing the drugs and getting the hell out of the bar. It's a mad, mad, mad, mad world!
  • Anastasia - a Russian girl, who was actually Volga German, which is my own heritage. If you want to learn more about Volga Germans, check out this article. They have an amazing history and talking with her about her family's history made me very happy that my family immigrated to the U.S. when they did. Four words: Bolsheviks hated Volga Germans.
What will it be tonight?

Local Flavor:

Along with meeting Reaksmey, I was also able to reconnect with my friend Badong. I had met him about three years ago on my first trip to Cambodia. He was our tuk tuk driver at the time, but has since left the business and is working for a hotel.

It was really great talking with him, as he gave us some amazing inside perspective of the country, both good and bad. Sadly, Cambodia is selling a lot of its land to foreign investors. Sand is being sold to Malaysia, China has bought up large chunks of the country. The list goes on. There is major fear from the locals that this will cause disaster and is not sustainable for the people. I couldn't agree more.

Badong really wants Khmer people to create more businesses and control more of the businesses too. I really hope this happens. I see so much potential for this place, but it is still fragile and corruption is rampant in the government.

Sorry, this blog might have taken a little longer than I intended, but I wanted to capture it all. Phnom Pehn is a diamond in the rough that is growing brighter and brighter. Although it has its sex tourism and dead rats - we saw so many pancaked rats that had been hit by tuk tuks (rats and tuk tuks run rampant!) - we really enjoyed the people that we met. It is a city with good bones that has lots of potential, and those that are willing to stand the crazy that the city has to offer will be well rewarded.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Good Food, Good Meat! Good God, Let's Eat!


This is by far my favorite prayer, and one my grandfather use to say all the time when asked to provide a prayer for the table. He was not a religious man, so the faster he could get to his plate, the better.

 This intro has nothing (or very little) to do with the content of this blog post. I don't care. That prayer makes me smile, and I hope that the next time you consume a meal, you think of it. My editor and boyfriend, Matt Coolidge, will advise me to edit this out. Again, I don't care. And, I hope you don't care either, reader. [Editor's Note: I don't care either - in fact, I actually like it]

 So, what is this blog about? The capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh (PP). Yes, there was a lot of eating there. And if I regularly prayed for people's souls, I'm sure I would have done a lot of praying there. So here goes the good, bad and ugly of the PP.

 First and foremost, Phnom Penh was the biggest surprise of our trip. We went into the city expecting nothing and came out with a lot of great stories. It was one of the only places on the trip in which Matt and I could see ourselves living long term. It was a place that had tons of rats, dead and alive, on the streets. More prostitute bars than regular bars. And, bed bugs, or at least phantom bed bugs, in our 'guesthouse'! But even with all its seediness, I still loved it. And to think, we were originally going to bypass the Asian city of our dreams...

 Matt and I were not planning to go to PP to begin with, but had heard it was a great place to get an Indian visa (a completely different story that I hope Matt will share with you, as he did experience about ten mental breakdowns at the Indian Embassy. I hate to gossip about others' mental woes, so I will leave it to him). So, in desperate need of an Indian visa, we decided to take a five-hour bus from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to PP.

 The bus was smoother than smooth. The border crossing was clean and, wait for it, efficient! Efficient border crossings and transportation is a bit unheard of in Southeast Asia. We also got to take a ferry over the mighty Mekong! It was not scenic at all, but it is still fun to say you crossed any mighty river, right?

Took this picture as we were leaving Hoh Chi Minh City.

As we began to cross into the city via another river, there was a large slum to our right. I don't take pictures of slums as I don't want to exploit and/or glorify other people's poverty, but if you google "Phnom Penh slum," the second or third picture in the series should give a pretty accurate idea of the conditions there. The houses seemed to be leaning and falling into the river. It wasn't rainy season, but I figure during that time many houses must be completely submerged. Where do the people go?

 As we carried on towards the river and the proverbial "right side of the tracks," I heard a triumphant scream from outside. As I squinted my eyes and stared into the slum, I saw a net, 12 players... A volleyball game was in full swing!

Volleyball was a game of my childhood. A game that I played with white soled shoes, white socks and white knee pads. A game where you have to clean the court before you start. A game where you slide on the floor for so long because the sealant wax is so fresh and new. I love that smell.

It is a sterile game.

The most sterile kind of game you can find, sans maybe badminton.

 There was nothing sterile about the game outside of PP. The court was made of mud. There were no shoes, sock or knee pads. There was just the sound of the ball as it was being passed, set, spiked, and the cheer and slaps of the team when one made an ace and a groan when one fumbled a serve.

I discovered later that volleyball is played all over Cambodia. In most of Southeast Asia, soccer is the official sport. But in Cambodia, you can find a volleyball net in cities big and small. Even if the town does not have running water, there will be a net and a ball.

 Once the bus stopped, We were pounced on by tuk tuk drivers all wanting to know if we wanted to see the 'Killing Fields' or S21 prison (a school turned torture chamber during the Khmer Rouge regime). Matt and I started to run for the streets, and eventually found a guy who wasn't pushing a hard sell. He took us to our guesthouse.

I won't go into details about this guesthouse or about seeing all the sites of Phnom Penh. For the most part, the sites to see in PP will leave you depressed for months and the guesthouses are nothing to write home about. I think we actually stayed in a 'pay by the hour' guesthouse for the majority of our trip. Plus, we stayed in PP for two weeks! So to save you an hour or two, let's talk about why I loved
PP!

The Architecture:

There were beautiful French homes here that would tickle the biggest architect aficionado. The National Museum of Cambodia, which is a must if you ever go here, was gorgeous. The museum houses mainly ancient Khmer art from the time of the Khmer Empire (Wiki tells me that the empire started in 802 A.D. and ended in the 15th century). The building was started in 1917 and was created to resemble a Khmer Temple. There is a beautiful courtyard inside the museum with multiple koi ponds. I could have sat and lingered there all day.

 My eyes were constantly looking around and finding one architectural embellishment after another in that enigmatic capital. Through the grime of the walls, you could see its old grandeur - and potential for new beauty. Not to mention, the boulevards were big here. I mean, they were French boulevards. It was easy to walk everywhere or ride your bike - the city is flatter than flat too!

Beautiful building we passed on our way to the Indian Embassy. Purpose:unknown.

Matt requested that I take this picture of him outside the National Museum.

A building from the Royal Palace in PP

Statue of Ganesha, a Hindu God, outside of the National Museum

A beautiful boulevard in PP

Photo from a balcony downtown. I think I can see a rat from here.

Matt Coolidge original of the Royal Palace


The Food:

Khmer people are very adaptable and hospitable. Something that is so apparent in the cuisine and service of Cambodia. Cambodia does not have delicious food. A lot of Khmer food will shock you more than wet your chops (yes, we ate snake!). Some common roadside snacks are crickets and duck embryos. But, you will always be greeted warmly.

 Now for the adaptability: Khmer people are great at creating other countries' cuisines. Matt and I ate delicious pizzas, amazing burritos and anything our little hearts desired. We ate well and we ate cheap. You can find western food all over Asia, but by and large it is crap and you are better sticking to local cuisine; Cambodia was the exception.

The logo for our favorite Mexican joint in PP. It was owned by a guy from Dallas.

Fish Amok. Another Classic Khmer dish. The fancy fish amok come in bamboo like this one. It is similar to a curry, but without the spice. We had it once. Enough said.



Did I mention, you could get a proper cocktail here too? Most cocktails I have found in SEA taste like sweet vomit or pepto bismol.

 I was going to write another section entitled 'people,' but I have way too much to say in that department. So, if you are interested in reading more about the crazy characters we met (think cocaine highs and Russian refugees), read the next blog: The Lord's Prayer.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Hood Rats Thoughts on Beijing

Beijing really blew my mind. I came in with no expectations, other than the city was smoggy and had the Great Wall. Even with the smog indeed being unbearable at times, I still loved Beijing. How unbearable was the smog, you ask? A friend told me that teachers get paid 50 percent more to live in Beijing than elsewhere in China because of the smog. I already covered Saul the Smog in my last blog, so let's talk about something else. First and foremost, there is a crazy energy that you get in China. I think the energy is a mix of hope and fear. China is growing really fast and there is a lot of opportunity for the middle class. They're major consumers now, which is something that is relatively new and very pervasive (Malls, Malls, Malls - sung to the tune of "Girls, Girls, Girls" by Motley Crue). One example of this phenomenon in action - as recently as 15 years ago, if you wanted to buy a washer, you would need to enter a lottery to get a ticket to buy one. Now, you can simply go to the store and buy it (and many, many people do). There are still some restrictions on purchasing power, particularly around cars. You can easily buy a car, but there is a bit of a wait to get your license plate. The government is doing this to cut down on pollution. There seems to be, at least on the surface, the ability for folks to move up the socio-economic food chain. However there still seems to be a healthy degree of simmering fears just underneath the surface. Information is not freely exchanged, and people who were raised during the ill-fated Cultural Revolution, in which Mao essentially tried to purge the country of all Western influence, still carry painful, vivid memories of that traumatic time. Sorry to start it off so darkly, let's get back into Beijing. Again, there is so much growth here. About eight years ago, there were only two subway lines in Beijing, now there are up to fourteen and they are expanding rapidly. Same with the train system. There are a ton of new high-speed rails that were created two years ago. BART, please step up your game. People have been incredibly friendly to us here, and many have asked to take pictures with Matt. Yes, Matt! I have been pushed out of pictures on more than one occasion. There are a great deal of historical relics in Beijing, each of which have been beautiful to see and well worth it. If you guys want me to describe in more detail the Forbidden City or the Great Wall, just let me know and I will do a more detailed post on it. China also takes karaoke to the next level. My friend invited us to a karaoke night with his friends. We went to a huge palace-type complex. Prior to entering the karaoke room, there was a grocery store where we got our beer and snacks. Matt quickly found a friend who loved rock music. His name was Rock. They sang Sweet Child of Mine and Don't Want to Miss a Thing. Actually, Matt sang most of the song. Usually you exchange the mic, but Matt really is a solo act. Also for those of you thinking of venturing to China, you must go bargain shopping. In Beijing the big market is called the silk market. They have everything you want and more and they all try to trick you into paying too much. Luckily, I was with Matt who fancies himself a connoisseur at bargaining. At first I was a little skeptical of his claim, but let me tell you, the man has style. At one of the shops the woman bargaining with Matt got all huffy and yelled, "Why you so tough?" Telltale sign that we had won that round. Moral of the story? When in Beijing, if you leave a vendor close to tears, it means you were not screwed.

Pictures of food... And a beautiful gorge

I plan to send more pictures, but currently four is all this internet can handle. Matt and I just finished a two day trek in the Yunnan Provence. The trek takes you around Tiger Leaping Gorge, which is a contender for the world's deepest river canyon and also the primary tributary to the upper Yangtze River. The river has a legend, which involves a tiger... Apparently, many moons ago, a tiger jumped across the river rapids to escape from hunters. The rapids are daunting. A friendly English lad told us that in the 1960s a few expats tried to raft the river. They died. Damn hippies. The first day, we hiked for about six hours - straight uphill. We arrived at a hostel and spent the night. It was the first time that I have seen stars in China. It was also freezing. I wrapped a towel around my head and wore it all night. The same friendly English lad asked me what I had on my head. I simply said, "heat." English people = not intuitive. On our second day, we got up with the rooster and trekked to the magical tiger rock. They carved the path onto the mountain and it was a straight climb down and up - one slip and you are dead. They had plenty of ladders that you could climb as short cuts. These ladders scared Matt shitless. As always, I calmed him down and we made it safe and sound. Below are a few pictures of the gorge and some Boa tsi (steamed bread with pork). We eat this almost every morning for breakfast.

The Etiquette of Karaoke

Back when I lived in the hustle and bustle of San Francisco, my friends and I would occasionally go to Karaoke. Although my set of friends in San Francisco is the most elite and posh group the city has to offer, we usually decided to leave the royalty of the W to grace our gold plated shoes upon the vomit and beer stained floors of Market street.

Why?

Cheap drinks and old bartenders who had nothing to lose… If you have to question the latter of the two, maybe we should sit down over a nice beer and talk about the state of ‘desperation.’

But back to the topic: Karaoke.

My friends and I would go to this real dive on Market, I believe it was called “Moores’ or some Irish name. Every bar in my neighborhood was named after an Italian or Irish family. Did I mention I lived on the cusp of the Tenderloin, one of the most dangerous districts in San Francisco? I also lived on the cusp of the Castro, which is the gay district. I felt like my neighborhood bars had the blend of rough hooligan homosexuals. I know this may seem like an Oxymoron, but they do exist and I shame you for stereotyping.

Occasionally on Wednesday nights I would go out for drinks with my friends and inevitably we would end up at this bar. Some of my friends would go home preparing themselves for their 'big job' on Thursday, but I was an intern with no mortgage. I thought it was either now or never and I only needed five hours of sleep to be a functioning adult; I need at least eight to be a functioning child. Now maybe it was due to late nights out or the state of the economy, but when I became ‘fun employed’ or as I told the Unemployment Office ‘a desperate job seeker,’ I went to the Karaoke joint more periodically with my ‘self-employed’ neighbor.

Why?

He always bought the drinks.

Once inside the warm and musky smelling bar, my friends and I would sing the likes of Snoop Dog and occasionally our friend Katie who knows how to sing would belt out a rendition of “All that Jazz” to the delight of the bartenders and the Karaoke fanatics (Yes some people go to Karaoke eight nights a week and treat it as a second job)…

Now if you have never been to Karaoke and if your voice is below par it is always necessary that you pick a song that everyone knows and can sing to. Nobody wants to hear a bad singer and the elightest Karaoke peeps will boo you off the stage or talk really loud while you are trying to sing, “Come to My Window” by Melissa Ethridge. Side note, nobody came to my window that night.

The real challenge of Karaoking is finding the songs that the crowd is going to like. Unless of course you have an amazing voice like Christina Aguilera and can blow the audience out of the water with your God given talent, but this only comes along in a blue moon and if you think you have a good voice, just Karaoke one night and you’ll know if your hidden talent is really a talent. kiss. That being said, if you are like 99.9% of America or the world for that matter your voice is probably bad, thus when you go to Karaoke you need to pick the crowd pleasers, not the ones that will showcase your cat-like voice.

As I travel across the world and go to many different Karaoke joints this idea of singing the crowd pleasers holds the same note. Although in different countries and even regions the songs change drastically. Here in Korea, the crowd pleasers are old Korean songs that have really high squealing sequences or surprisingly ABBA, more specifically Mamma Mia theme songs. Just like the Castro back at home, Momma Mia was a hit!!!

Koreans call Karaoke joints Noribongs and they are not like your average Karaoke facility. Instead of a large room with strangers Noribongs are private and just amongst friends or foreign hooligans who have met and bonded throughout the night.

Each person picks his or her ‘Go to Song’ and then they sing it to their friends. Usually, everyone in the room sings the songs together and people can share the stage. This isn’t always the case. I have had a few nights where microphones have been punched out of my hands. Some people are just spotlight hogs and let me tell you these are never the people that you want to Noribong or Karaoke with as they have in fact lost the essence of Karaoking: Togetherness.

I have also had my ‘Go to Songs’ skipped, this happens quite often when I am Noribonging with a certain character who will remain unanimous until I leave Korea. I fear that my Noribonging privileges will be taken if I announce the culprit via the internet.

In Japan I did a few Karaoking sessions. One place that I went was similar to the Korean Noribongs, but another one was the American style Karaoke with strangers singing together in one big room. I would like to give a Japanese perspective of my experience, but each time I went I was surrounded by a strange nationality called Australian. I figured these chaps would love to sing songs like, “I Come from a Land Downunder” or be all up in arms over Kylie Minogue, but there mouths salivated to Billy Joel and “Creep” by Radiohead.

As a side note, “Creep” is also an underground Karaoke song. Almost everyone and their mother knows that song and it has great climatic stages to get the audience really ‘in it.’ It also boast simple, but true to life lyrics like, “I wish I was special. You’re so fucking special!”

Now, I’m not trying to stereotype the Australian musical choices, people were throwing out lots of great songs not just Billy Joel (not to say Billy Joel isn’t an amazing musician because he is…), I was just surprised by their choices. I guess… I just felt like an outsider looking into classics that I grew up on. It was as though they were singing their national anthem… as though there was a hidden message to these songs that I had just not heard before… as though the song was originally played in the key of G, but for some reason because of the equator the Australians always knew the song in the key of C. And while I sat there sipping on my wasp vodka (yes a wasp was in my vodka) I couldn’t help but think, “Do my Korean friends feel the same way when my American friends and I sing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ at the Noribongs?”

Maybe I felt this way because of the etiquette or should I say essence of Karaoke, ‘the knowledge of your audience.’ I didn’t know if the Australians went on long road trips with their parents and sang such classics as “In the Middle of the Night” by Billy Joel or if my Korean friends turn on the radio station with their girlfriends and belt out in unison “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler…

I guess Karaoke just makes me miss home. It makes me miss really bad radio music and the 90s. I don’t really know the moral to my story, but hopefully it will inspire you to head to your local Karaoke bar and indulge in bad music and hominess.

Karl the Fog vs. Saul the Smog

Karl the Fog vs. Saul the Smog For those of you that are unfamiliar with San Francisco, let me preface this by saying that San Francisco is a foggy city. It is surrounded by cold waters (the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay), and to the north and east are climates that stay relatively warm. The cool waters mixed with the warm inland weather make for an ideal breeding ground for fog, especially in the summer months. Fog is so pervasive in San Francisco that it has been personified. We call him Karl the Fog, and he has his own Instagram and Twitter handle. To me, Karl is a wet blanket sort of friend. He crashes a sunny birthday party at Golden Gate Park and ruins it with his gloom. You were just starting to feel warm and fuzzy at Dolores Park, and then Karl rolls in to tell you that he's having the worst day of his life because his fish died + his Netflix queue is all screwed up. Your warm and fuzziness ceases to exist and you have to packup your blanket and go to bed because Karl's depression has left your bones chilled. He can be a bit obnoxious at times, but he can also be incredibly beautiful. When I lived on Nob Hill, I would sometimes walk to Grace Cathedral at night and at the top of the steps before the door, I would turn to look at the city and it would just be a blanket of fog. It looked and felt as though I was sitting on top of a cloud. It was just me and Karl up there, and our conversation was sweet and melodious. Since being in Beijing and Xian, I have met another grey matter that lurks just below the skyline - and also in the lungs. I have named him Saul the Smog. Saul is the type of friend that shows up to the party way too early, smokes the entire night (even when the host has asthma) and doesn't leave when you ask him to. He is like a drunk uncle that lingers in the house with a cigarette always lit, and with his hands in his pants. He gives the babies dreadful coughs and makes the adults as a addicted to tobacco as he is, because, hell, if you are already dying from cancer through secondhand smoke, you might as well get a buzz while you fall to the grave. There are no redeeming qualities to Saul, and since entering Beijing - and Northern China as a whole - he has not left. I do not know if it is because of Saul, but I have noticed a lot more people smoking in Beijing, and also hacking massive, mucus-filled loogies that can be found everywhere: on the bus seats, on the toilet and sometimes even on my shoes. Saul is a pain in my ass and has left my virginal lungs with tar. Okay, he hasn't. I did live in San Francisco, where the fog prompts many folks to smoke another type of substance. Sans Saul, Beijing has been an amazing city that I will write more about in my next blog. Till then, good day!