Friday, May 19, 2017

Puerto Rico

Mr. CT Lawyer and I went to Puerto Rico about 2 months ago with his friends for a birthday celebration. A lot has happened since then (my mom passed as soon as I returned) and it feels like ages ago, but it was such a wonderful trip I want to make sure I document somewhere, so if I forget again that I went, I have this place as a reminder.

I arrived in San Juan late and after a turbulent flight. I wanted badly to sleep in for a long tim - and the rain before, during, and after our trip beckoned me - but we had a flight the next day to another island in the region, the naturally beautiful Vieques. Luckily, when we woke up and looked out the window, the mess of the constant rain and annoying flights were erased by the opulent blue we saw at the resort's beach, and all across the horizon.

The next morning, we grabbed our backpacks and took a cab to the small domestic airport in the middle of town. There, we were placed on scales and assigned one of the 7 seats available on the prop plane we were taking to get to Vieques.

A note to appreciate the tiny prop plane we took - our trip there was a delightful float to Vieques. We were below cloud level the whole time, and our 30-minute trip was a wonderful tour of the coast of San Juan and the dazzling blue waters that surround it. Our older pilot was a real gentleman type (with the coiffed hair and dress all in the appropriate classiness), and our little noisy plane dutifully tooted over to Vieques with his attentive switching of switches and watching the radar screen. The flight back, on the other hand, was turbulent and like being in a toy boat during a storm, rocking and zigzagging in the air while we beat the rain and rough low clouds. One of the ladies on the flight back got sick and I prayed for an emergency landing the whole 30 minutes in the air.

Anyways, Vieques.

Vieques is an island that boasts being the least touched by the modern world in a bunch of places (save the nuclear testing happening on one end of the island that kind of ruined parts of the island off limits to others), and we loved it for that. We arrived at the little airport to a beautiful smell of tropical trees and fresh rain, with the temperature being lower than the main island. We took a cab and drove to Esperanza on the southern side of the island (where the small tourist town was) and admired the lush green going past us as we drove. Vieques has a large National Park on it, but even the area where we were staying felt peacefully rural and low key. The roads aren't repaved because of the stormwater runoff impacting the beaches, and there is not a lot of light pollution. There are (what I believe are wild) horses roaming the streets of the tourist area, chilling out in a truly laid back beachy vibe that encompasses the whole island. For the very brief day we visited, we loved it!

Our Airbnb wasn't much to write about, so I won't. And it was raining a lot while we were there so I won't go too much into the tourism there for the one night we stayed there, for there wasn't much that we did or ate (except at a little joint named El Rancho Choli, where we were given tasty but huge portions of local pork and rice).

We were in Vieques for a very specific reason: bioluminescence. I have wanted to see bioluminescent waters for a while (since I found out about them, probably), and Vieques is supposed to be one of the best places in the world to see them. So when Mr. CT Lawyer mentioned his friends trip to PR, I almost immediately started to research how to kayak in the bioluminescent bays. We were fortunate that we were in the area for the appropriate time of the month (during a new moon), or else all of our trips would have been for naught. And apparently Vieques can fill up quickly, so we were extra lucky we booked it so early on so as to avoid missing out.

The evening we arrived, we went to a green store and waited for a bus to drive us to the bay for the kayaking experience. We had hired a local eco-tour group (Jak Water Sports), which turned out to be at our benefit as they only do small groups and use minimal light while we are on the water. The friendly staff got us ready to go and rocked us down the rocky road to the water, and at 8pm we headed off into our partner kayaks to experience the bioluminescent plankton.

At first, we didn't think much of the water that lit up gently while we touched our paddles onto it, but the further we got from the beach, the water sparkled like stars around us. We had a glass bottom kayak, and we could see the little glowing specks rushing past us like we were traveling through space at great speeds. We put our hands in the water and they would be covered in twinkling stars. I threw water on my partner and his back shimmered. And we had perfect timing because as we started to kayak back to the beach the rain started to downpour; we were able to run into the bus quickly. As the rain started, though, the light flickered in the water as the drops hit the surface each time. Magical is the word.

After our fun bioluminescent adventure, we returned to Old San Juan and became standard tourists. I don't mean that in the sense that we wanted to be that way, but it was just easier to be that way, because of our large group and our resort deal and the way PR works. There is a lot of tourism-based shopping and tours and places in San Juan - it was hard to not be a standard tourist. It was still lovely.

We had a day in Old San Juan, where we did the routine pilgrimage to the old and beautiful fortresses that hug the coast and tried to get a feeling of the town. We enjoyed looking at the waters through the 16th-century porticos and walking around the old architecture of big defense walls. We carefully navigated old cobblestone streets and tried to get lost down alleyways in a small strip of land that is Old San Juan. The town's buildings were vibrant colors and closely packed on the old Spanish streets. It reminded me of New Orleans a bit, only with more commercial than NOLA's artisanal local shops laced in between tourist traps. We were surrounded by shops like Ben & Jerry's, Adidas, and Coach - not normally what I think of when I think of Puerto Rico. We were clearly not the target audience.

Foodwise, this trip was a lot less gastronomic than many of my trips have been in the last few years. Sure there, were a lot of food options, and the pork and seafood were delicious, but we weren't having mind-blowing meals every time. Which was fine! The one thing I wanted to try, mofongo, my partner had tried before I arrived and had proclaimed to never wanting to try it again, so I didn't have a lot of time (or options) to go for it in the 4 days we were there.

BUT! We did have two awesome meals while we were there. Let me tell you about those memorable meals.
  • Cafe Cortes Chocobar is my dream-come-true restaurant because they incorporate chocolate into everything. Take, for example, the chocolate-infused ketchup we had with our waffle fries, or our chocolate-spiced ceviche. And, of course, decadent chocolate shakes with chocolate shavings! The place was bustling, and we only got snack foods to hold us over for dinner. There was a line waiting to be seated before us, and it was worth it. I brought home some hot chocolate bars they had, and I have to admit they've already been drunk in entirety.
  • Marmalade was our fancy romantic dinner date for the trip (because every trip has a fancy romantic dinner date), and we were both blown away by the meal. We ordered way too much (they offered dinners based on 5, 6, and 7 dishes - we chose 6, and were full to the point of popping), but each dish was delightful and fun. Most of the dishes we picked were rich and flavorful (our mistake), but there were a lot of lighter and fresh dishes as well. I had a very nice sangria, and finished off with creme brulee (my favorite). I had to walk outside for a while to get some air after our filling meal, but we already talk about going to Marmalade again when we return to San Juan.
Finally, a lot of our trip, when we weren't kayaking in Vieques or scaling Old San Juan, was stationed at the resort. We were, after all, there for a friend's birthday, and for mandatory relaxation. We spent a night enjoying a lovely birthday party under a colorful sunset on a vanilla sky, and one day we went to the spa for a treatment and massage after lounging around the beach and pools for a few hours. That's not normally how I travel, but I think this time it was glorious and (given the events that happened after the trip) necessary.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Delayed Swedish (Chef) Post

Vasa Museum
It has been months since I visited Sweden, and I have only now found the time to recall and describe my visit there. It just goes to show how quickly life can run away from me.

Why did I go to Sweden? Because I was attending a big conference for the global water industry - Stockholm World Water Week (aka, SIWI). I had bought my tickets to go to SIWI before I got employed, but I ended up helping out my organization while I was there to get better involved.

SIWI is essentially the Lollapalooza for water professionals in the world, where developed and developing country people meet in droves at meetings, social events, panels, and other conference-planned fun. Some couple thousand of us attended and took over the city for a week. It was overwhelming and wonderful. I won't be going into the details here about the whirlwind of the conference - just know it was very useful and that I passed out cold every night I approached the bed.

I was also committed to being a full-on tourist between conference events and professional moments. My partner Mr. CT Lawyer also took the opportunity to join me there for his own holiday, which gave us exciting romantic moments.

Aside from it being cooler in temperature compared to what I'm used to in August/September, I found Stockholm to have a quiet regality to it. Everything felt clean to me (including the youth hostels I stayed in when Mr. CT Lawyer wasn't there), and the city felt small and functioned without much fuss. I'd even say politely. If NYC was freshly washed and cleaned in the West Village or UWS, I'd say it felt of similar color to me as Stockholm. With that includes the fact that Sweden has apparently a culture (at least in the city) of late night happenings starting at midnight. As I am not someone who frequents bars and likes to be in bed by 11pm, I can't expand more on this as I was fast asleep, wearing ear plugs

I got to Stockholm a day or so before Mr. CT Lawyer, so I took my jet-lagged self on a walk through the town to see what was going on and how to navigate the conference before it started. It was rainy when I arrived (and throughout my visit), but I bought myself a small umbrella and walked through the business districts, through the ancient area of Gamla Stan with the palace and winding alleyways with old brick houses and customs houses, and back across towards the museum area. Aside from the bustling tourists, I found the quiet while walking around to be quite soothing compared to the hectic NYC noise.

While I'm not much interested in visiting museums while I 'm traveling, I visited the Vasa Musem that is dedicated to an old Stockholm harbor shipwreck that was resurfaced and preserved. It was a fascinating place that hoisted the delicate ship remains at the center of the building, with displays and stories spiraling down from the masts to the base of the ship's belly.

Once Mr. CT Lawyer came in town, we loaded tourist activities into our schedule before my conference started. We went on a mini-archipelago cruise, which for a few hours wove between some of the closer islands that populate the waters in and around the city. We also walked over to the outdoor museum called Skansen. Through our meandering walk through the museum I had hoped to espy (and pet) some living moose and reindeer who had such little interest in us humans they (understandably) stayed as far away from the edges of their enclosures. To soothe my sad inner child, we relished at the food court a traditional smorgasbord of meatballs covered in lingonberry sauce and mashed rutabaga.

We ate a lot of food while in Stockholm - probably more than we should have. All of it was so delicious and scrumptious...and sinful. I discovered pear soda/seltzer, which was so refreshing I am still actively hunting for it in the US. It was also morel and crayfish season so, of course, I had to try different delightful dishes with those in it to "make sure" I understood what morel and crayfish tasted like. And I ate some tender reindeer accompanied with a rich and comforting sauce a couple of times. One luxurious meal that we went to was at a super restaurant called Djuret, which I believe means animal in Swedish. There, we had a 6-course meal dedicated to one daily animal (ours was lamb). Each new dish was just as fascinating and fulfilling as the dish before, and I started to fully understand what people mean when they talk about food being a journey or adventure. We had a blast trying out the unique flavor combinations and admiring the stunning art of food. He had an applemust (like sparkling apple cider) that was so good it made me angry. I had a new glass of tasty wine with every dish and became sufficiently silly by the time we left the fancy restaurant - hours after we started.

I felt like a lot of the food was very creamy, like the seafood salads and all of the sweet treats, so I am baffled at how Swedes are able to keep their stereotypically lithe figures, considering all of that cream and butter put an extra load on my person. I spent enough money on souvenirs and delectable foods that at least my wallet was lighter than it was before I arrived.

One day we walked through Gamla Stan and found a lovely candy store that hosted an array of homemade taffies and hard candies. We walked in like children and gazed at the unique (to us) flavors of the candy canes when the runner of the store - a young a more svelte version of Santa Claus - came out jubilantly and sold us some candy, giving us free candy canes for "being good". Speaking of which, something I noticed that was fun about the area was that candy canes (called polka in Swedish) were ample, despite it not being the Christmas season. I had always considered candy canes to be solely dedicated to the month of December, but in Sweden, you can get polka ice cream from a non-Santa-doppleganger while sweating in a t-shirt and shorts. I guess, in my head, Sweden lived up to every stereotype I've ever harbored about it and its relationship to Christmas.

We also took a leisurely stroll at some point around the river in Sodermalm, where we found a hidden gluten free bakery on a quiet street, called Friend of Adam. There I bought a princess cake to try out. After my experience with it, I strongly believe that all cakes should now be princess cakes. The fluffy, spongey cake with the soaked up bits of berries, along with the light and buttery cream in the middle, and topped with a fun layer of marzipan was everything I could ever ask for in a cake. I hope you, too, get to experience the joys of a princess cake.

We were lucky in our Airbnb hunt for finding a nice place to stay for the week, in the southern city island of Sodermalm. While Gamla Stan is a quaint little tourist spot, and other areas are commercialized with shops and touristy food, Sodermalm helped us feel like we had found the "real" Stockholm - where people worked and lived life. We were surrounded by fun local restaurants and grocery stores that delighted and mystified me with its different selection of foods. We got to be away from the overly priced fikas and had pleasantly quiet morning enjoying creamy pastries while watching people stroll.

Before he left, we went to city hall for a conference buffet dinner. Along with many (many many) other water professionals, Mr. CT Lawyer and I found ourselves in an expansive hall that led into a gold hall that was covered in golden mosaics and had me gaping at the ceiling in between gulps of reindeer meatballs.

Mr. CT Lawyer left a few days before me, so I ended up having some time to explore more of the country by myself before heading home. Firstly, I met up with my online buddy, Malmo Martin, and we ate lunch at a cute little train restaurant and ended up walking around (and outside) of the city to help him prepare for a friend's bachelor party the next day. We chatted and joked about life while he patiently explained and detailed for me Swedish culture, politics, and current affairs.

The day before I left I decided to take an express train north to explore the old town of Uppsala. I only knew of Uppsala because of my appreciation for the popular book series by Stieg Larsson, but I am very glad I made the trek up despite intermittent rain. I started in Gamla Uppsala, where the old town used to be located some hundreds of years ago. In this area are three ancient royal burial mounds, which are hard to miss as you walk around and between the mounds. The museum for the ancient site was small and simple but well done. I learned about the occult linkages to the grounds, and they ended up handing me an iPad and told me to walk around with it outside as I scaled the old ruins. When I looked up, I saw the quiet ruins of a cute sprawl of land with grass and a church. When I held up the iPad and looked into it, I saw a rendering of a living and populous town hundreds of years ago happening on the screen. This made me giddy with excitement.

After my adventures in Gamla Uppsala, I took a bus over to the new town area, where the university is. This area was a lot more like Stockholm, and I mosied around and explored some of the university campus without having to get in the way of celebrating college students running around. I visited the big cathedral and the Gustavianum Museum, where I got to go into a creepy operating theater (the world's 2nd oldest) and explore their collection on Mr. Nobel and his famous prize.

I wish I had been able to write this earlier so I could have more fully remembered all of the pieces of my visit there, and perhaps portrayed a fuller vision of what I experienced. What I do know is that I am looking forward to going back to Sweden. I know there's more in store for me.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Leaving Brisbane

When I returned to Brisbane, I was surprised with the challenges I had with readjusting. I had major jet lag from the flying, and people commented for a week or two that I seemed flat or unwell. I’m not really sure what was going on, but I was hurting for a little bit after returning from SE Asia. Either I missed the lifestyle I had grown accustomed to in Phnom Penh, or I was recuperating from months of being sick off and on there. Either way, it was hard.
I do know that I was struggling to adjust to the bus system in Brisbane. In most of my adventures through SE Asia I was used to hailing a tuk-tuk driver with a simple nod of my head and for small denominations of dollars get carried to anywhere in the area I desired to see. In Bangkok, there’s a transit system that operates regularly, much like the NYC subway system only above ground. In Brisbane, on the other hand,  I lived in a place where buses were maybe every 30 minutes normally needed at least one transfer somewhere to get where I wanted to go. There was a lot more planning that had to happen for me to get anywhere.
Brisbane, after all, is a very large suburban-urban area. Or, as many people told me time and time again, Brisbane is a big country town.
Which meant I was at the mercy of the usually-late TransLink buses that would take me from Point A to Point B..with about 20 points between the two. During Brisbane’s cool winter time. With shops closing at 6pm every day (as opposed to SE Asia’s “open late” culture). Being a famously impatient and cold-adverse person, I did not take to these readjustments easily.
Most of my first four weeks of being back emphasized finishing my piece de resistance – my Final Project for the Masters of Integrated Water Management! I am pretty good at time and project management, so I was ahead of schedule and was able to calmly hunker down and polish my 70-page paper over and over again until I could submit it several days early. I booked several health appointments during this time (I wanted to check everything before I left since it was cheaper there than in the US), where most professionals remarked how calm I seemed considering how close my deadline was.
Admittedly, my calm demeanor and confident project management did not prevent me from stress eating. And I did have a hospital run a few weeks after returning…but that was mostly because I had had my medication adjusted just before and my health insurance told me I needed to make sure I was not reacting adversely to the change. Unfortunately, I had another infuriatingly bad run with the public hospital system in Australia (with a doctor yelling at me about how we are all going to die someday while I was asking him if I was okay) that may haunt me for a while to come. Don’t worry – I am still fine, just angry at a cocky doctor who was less than helpful with a simple concern.
Also, one week before submitting my paper there was a full-time conference on WASH in Brisbane. This was a huge week, as I was wearing several different hats every day at the conference, depending on the audience and time of day. I was working my consulting job a few hours during each day of the conference while I also represented my masters program…while trying much as possible to network for my own emerging WASH career. In some ways, the week was overwhelming because of the amount of people I talked to, but I also felt in my element. I am a social person who is hungry for learning and likes to network, after all. It was also very fun to see those I met in Phnom Penh and throughout my consulting/education come together and weave in and out for a few days.
And then, I submitted my paper.
I submitted it early, and it was anticlimactic. I was expecting some kind of little trumpet announcing my completion, or maybe a hug. Instead, I simply got an email saying, “Assessment Received”. And that was that. A few days later my friends from the class got together to celebrate our completion of the program – only then did I feel like I was really done.
Of course, my six weeks back in Australia included reuniting with friends and seeing people I had met throughout the last year and a half. I met up with friends as much as I could before I left – for dinner, for lunch, for festivals, for walks.
Some of my closer friends and I took a few days to rent a cabin in the Bunya Mountains and enjoy some relaxing freedom with each other before we started to return to our own countries. On our trip, we stocked amazing amounts of food that we cooked between long hikes around the mountain trails. There were wallabies carpeting the landscape with little joeys poking out of pouches everywhere! The air was clean (and COLD!) and smelled like trees and wooden stoves. At night, we’d go outside and gaze at the Milky Way in the darkness of a quiet, lamp-less place. We talked about funny and serious things over wine and movies. We fought off red-bellied black snakes before munching on trail mix. The retreat was a lovely respite from the rest of the world.
I worked until I left to return to the US (I am still consulting, too) so I did not have a lot of downtime before leaving. But that’s okay, because it meant I was busy and productive, which I like. 
A few days ago, I got on a redeye plane that took me out of my Australian Chapter of Life and placed me soundly back into the US for the next chapter that I have yet to open. I got a bit emotional while I left, but by now I have moved back and forth so much that it's become almost standard procedure for me.
In reflection about Australia, people asked me if I would take a job and live there. The answer is, I’m not sure.
The whirlwind 18 months have been so incredible and eye-opening that I feel it really gave me a chance to learn about my adult self and become more me. Australia was definitely a key piece to my transformation and incredible experience. It’s definitely a beautiful and peaceful place with more adorable and fuzzy animals than you can shake a stick at. And the people I’ve made friends with in Australia are outstanding and supportive friends. I am so glad that they are in my life and I wish I could safely bottle them up and take them with me wherever I end up. 

That said, I’m used to a different lifestyle that lets me be more mobile without a car or worrying about early business closing hours. I’m not used to watching TV in the evening - I'm more about  exploring interesting social events in random parts of the world. In some ways, the Australian culture is perfect and family-friendly and relaxed and secure…but I don’t think it’s for me. I like messy, adventurous, buzzing, aggressive places and cultures…like what I've experienced in NYC and Phnom Penh. I like dirt and tightly-packed streets where I can escape for a weekend. I like knowing that I have a small patch of city I can walk around and get everything I want without taking a 45-minute bus where I will feel carsick. 
I think if I was a quieter person with a lot less demands on a place (i.e. free and diverse activities, late-night options), and with a family to care for, I would jump on the opportunity to stay in sunny Australia. For now, I think I will love my Australian Chapter and look forward to visits back for friends and vacations.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Perth

I know I'm over a month behind on writing blog posts. I have been finishing my masters thesis...and consulting...and tying together the pieces before I leave for the US. Better late than never?

I should probably start from when I reentered Australia.

I came in through Western Australia, stopping in Perth for a few days. It so happens that stopping over in Perth from Southeast Asia before heading back to Brisbane saved me hundreds of dollars, and I have a friend in the area I was keen on visiting. Also, I had the rare opportunity to see one of my absolute favorite animals in the world, wild! It was a pretty good deal.

My friend met me at the airport. Upon seeing me at the gate, she handed me a sweater. After putting it on, she got me into her car so I could drop my heavy bags off at her house before adventuring around the area.

The weather in Perth compared to Phnom Penh was shockingly cold (I was shivering a bit). All of my heat rashes (I had quite a few on my limbs)from living in boiling Cambodia started to heal immediately after landing. I felt ill-equipped to deal with weather, though, as I had packed only tank tops and light shirts that breathe well while sweating. I was cold.

The culture shock from SE Asia to Australia was subtle and easy. The cleanliness of the streets surprised me for a while, as I was now used to streets lined with dust and dirt and litter and other curious objects (eg, half sets of sandals). I had learned how to listen for oncoming traffic so that I could leap out of their way and avoid injury. Here, the streets had grass and trees to divide the pedestrians from the cars, and the only trash you see is safely contained in bins, ready for pick-up. Here, everything looks so shiny and polished compared to what I had gotten used to.

The other surprise I had was the lack of people on the streets. There were so many streets, but I wondered where all of the people were. In SE Asia, it was a rare moment to be alone and free of other people. Now, the place seemed empty while we drove.

And we drove around a lot. For those who don't know, I am easily carsick and don't personally enjoy being in cars for long periods of time. This has been the case in Brisbane all year, where everything is accessible by riding in buses through long stretches of suburbia. Perth seemed to be formatted like Brisbane, with lots of roads and highways to drive. Aside from the discomfort of long drives, driving around did help me get to see the area quickly; given I only had a few days to see everything, I was glad to see the country gliding by my window.

We explored Freemantle a bit. Freemantle is kind of like a cute, quiet area of Perth that grew legs and walked down the shore a few miles. It is an adorable area with cute shops and pleasant cafes down small streets. It also used to be where a big prison was located, which is now a museum and performance space. We didn't get to go to the prison because of my limited time, but we visited the harbor area with a few older stone buildings we could walk around before eating fish & chips for lunch at an open-air harbor joint called Kaili's. Oh yeah, I was also having culture shock (and still am) to the high prices of Australia. This place is not cheap!

The second day in Perth was the piece de resistance of my trip. We woke up early, got to the port, and hopped onto a ferry to Rottnest Island. This, my friends, is where the adorable, angelic, absolutely amazing QUOKKAS LIVE!!!!

To say I was beside myself with excitement would probably not do justice the giddiness I had all day. I mean, I have been loving quokkas from afar for years! Finally, I got to go to quokka paradise and pet them! I got to potentially love them and rally the quokkas to happiness and freedom, with me, forever!

Well, I didn't expect the quokkas to be little sugar junkies, though. There are bakeries and sandwich/candy shops dotted near the harbor, and the little quokkas by the shops have grown accustomed to tourists dropping tasty things on the ground for them to try. The quokkas near the shops rummaged around for little morsels of chocolate or sugar or other highly-addictive substances that could cause major damage to the health of these succulent-eating marsupials. It was heartbreaking to be turned down by quokkas while holding a succulent leaf in exchange for someone nearby who had sugar-coated hands and a piece of banana (other tourists were idiots and kept feeding quokkas things that are not good for them). One local guy came over and told me that some of these quokkas by the shops have been losing chunks of fur as a result of eating sugary sweets instead of succulents. I was devastated to hear this. Later on, I saw a little quokka huddled in the corner of a shop's alley with Snickers wrapper in its delicate little paws. I shouted and ran over to grab the wrapper from the poor little fluffball, and it gave me a confused and sad look as I threw away the wrapper saying in near-tears, "No, quokka, no!"

Outside of the shop area, the beaches on the island were gorgeous and wild, and less-addicted quokkas came over and investigated our squee-ing selves for a little while. We tried our best to master the quintessential quokka selfie without intimidating the meek little things. They were sweet and gentle, and I was in love so much I barely could get myself to leave them. We also went for a quokka tour to learn more about their lifestyles and stumbled across a heavily-quokka-ed area where we oggled and awwwed for a while, trying to lure them to love us (I wasn't alone in this endeavor!). It was a heavenly day, and I could not have felt more accomplished in life.

We also enjoyed some snacks and toured the island on a bus, finishing our adventures with lunch at the port - I got myself an unprecedented amount of chili mussels for consumption.

I got another surprise during my short visit to Perth - I had found out that an old friend from NYU I hadn't seen in a decade lived in the area! We ended up meeting in Freemantle and enjoyed drinks and dinner with each other as we caught up on life over a few hours. I was so pleased to hear how she's doing and what has changed for both of us since last time we met. Reconnecting with old friends might be one of my favorite things in life.

On my last day, we visited the CBD of Perth. The buildings in Perth are big and loom over the streets in silence, but the city overall is a pretty small and compact place. Most of the places we wanted to visit (like museums) were unfortunately closed for the day, but we wandered a bit and I took in the quietness of the small city before getting on another plane to get back to Brisbane.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

A Farewell (for Now) to Cambodia

A few days ago in Phnom Penh, I packed myself up, grabbed a tuk-tuk to the airport, and flew out of the country back to Australia. It was a bittersweet farewell.

Let's start with the bitter part....

A lot of my time in Cambodia was framed with unforgiving heat and constant sweating. By the end of my visit, Shana and I found ourselves sitting in our common room staring at each other with dazed expressions, carefully keeping body parts away from each other to allow for sweat to dry (I was always covered with rashes and blisters from the sweat).  And the oozing heat was combined with a dangerous ongoing drought that is beginning to threaten food security (read: looming food crisis). So I won't miss that too much.

Also, I dealt with the long and arduous rites of passage of white foreigners that are GI tract issues. I had amoebic dysentery and a number of food poisonings during my stay. Even during my last week, right when I began to feel nostalgic for a country I've learned to love, I was reminded not to love any place too dearly because of some rotten food. Shana and I found ourselves clutching to bathroom doors with food poisoning from a nearby restaurant. Back in Australia now, I can say that my GI is on the mend and I am thrilled to feel less likely to get ill from the food (though I'm still wary of leafy greens). I definitely won't miss that, either.

Overall, though, sweetly, I found Cambodia to be a lovely place to be for a while. It is so easy to be a foreigner there - the country is brimming with NGOs and development work, and the country (the city especially) caters to the palates and whims of Westerners at pretty decent prices. I never felt like my safety was compromised while I was there, and the Khmer I met seemed more concerned with my well-being than even I was. So many of the people were friendly and generous to a humbling degree.

Also, I discovered my love of bobor/congee, for which I am grateful - I have a new comfort food! I was fortunate that Virak took me to get two heaping bowls of bobor a few days before I left.

Sure, there's issues with corruption and more political issues than you can shake a stick at (I'd rather not get into it at the moment), but the country works and grows in spite of those challenges. The economy is shifting and booming, and the changes are easy to see even over a brief stint like mine. I mean, a Krispy Kreme was about to open down the block right after I left! I cannot imagine what Cambodia will be like in a few years.

In fact, those challenges helped remind me that no country is immune to problems - especially the US. Though I admit, I am happy to be back in the developed world and am enjoying the comforts of my upbringing - the air is fresh, the food is clean, and the streets are quiet!

Final thought: I look forward to going back to Cambodia sometime soon (though, I hope, with cooler temperatures!).

Saturday, April 23, 2016

A Quiet New Year

About a week ago was the Khmer New Year. Most of the foreigners (aka expats) fled the country for holidays in cooler climates, and locals headed into the provinces to visit family over the holiday. I, on the other hand, opted to stay in Phnom Penh and work on my research project, furiously coding transcripts and trying (with tired eyes) to interpret my codes into a tangible story. I’m still working on making sense of the data and putting together my analysis, so I’m glad I stayed behind.

People here asked me what the city was like during the week everyone was gone. Honestly, I didn’t venture out too much because of my research, but I did go outside here and there. Simply put, it was hot and empty.

Firstly, it was hot. Of course, this is not an interesting observation; it is consistently in the 30s C / 80s-100s F. But that week was exceptionally hot – most days wavered between 39C / 102F to 40C / 104F (and that is not including the increased degrees for the “RealFeel” measurement). I hid in my bedroom with the aircon  nonstop in order to avoid melting; going outside seemed extremely unappetizing.

Also, Phnom Penh was silent and empty. The quiet meant I could sleep longer into the morning, which I found rather pleasant. And the streets were free of parked cars and people; only a couple cars would be driving down the main roads, whereas normally it’s packed and congested traffic nonstop. The reduced number of people made it easier to walk down the streets because there was no competition for space.

Actually, this walking around on the street was short-lived. Whenever I tried wandering more aimlessly up and down the street, I would get some tuk-tuk drivers’ attention. Normally, this attention includes someone shouting, “Hey lady want a tuk-tuk ride?! Where are you going??”, trying hard to make a transaction. Over the New Year, though, the attention was more tuk-tuk drivers’ adamantly yelling for me to get back on the sidewalk and put my phone away. It seems that some people take the week’s emptiness as an opportunity to speed down empty streets recklessly. Also, someone mentioned that theft goes up in the New Year because people want nice things like smartphones and will ride down the street on their motorcycles to snatch your belongings if you’re too close to the street.

The tuk-tuk drivers weren’t asking to give me rides, they were just genuinely concerned about my wellbeing. Which was a strange change of pace for me, being used to politely declining constantly as I walk down the street.

Despite the emptiness, I did have a little bit of a social life. There may not have been very many things open or people around (every restaurant I like to go to was closed), but I had a few friends who stuck around as well, and we'd go out to enjoy each other’s company over cold beverages (Brown Coffee was open, of course).

One friend had a dangerous allergic reaction to some strange ingredient in a meal while in the city that week. I tried to help that friend find an EpiPen or some allergy help so that they could figure out what happened to them. Just to let you know: Cambodia doesn’t have EpiPens. Try all you might, you will not be able to successfully source EpiPens in this country (and if you magically can, I am going to guess it’ll cost a lot). Luckily, this friend went to an embassy and sourced an EpiPens that way, but otherwise was looking at having to go to a clinic for a stab of adrenaline if anything else happened. This medical mishap was alarming for me in some way. I wonder, if someone has a child who is allergic to some food, what do you do? If someone is deathly allergic to some kind of insect or surprise allergy (and is a baby?!), what happens? It reminded me how some things that work in countries like Australia and the US are far cries from how things work in countries like Cambodia.


Don’t get me wrong! Cambodia is progressing and evolving at lightning speed. There are so many developments happening here, even for the 3 months I’ve been here! And so much is happening that it’s very exciting to be here and watch it change and morph into a new kind of society. That said, I do miss the immediate healthcare of other places. 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Field Research Fun

Cow grass
Last week I got into a quintessential expat vehicle (a white Jeep...with a driver) and drove a few hours out of Phnom Penh for interviews with local, rural government staff. Being the child that I am, as soon as the car started pushing out of the city, I fell asleep until my driver kindly nudged me awake in our first area for interviews, Kampong Speu.

During our few days in the field (meaning my friendly driver and me…and when I wasn’t lulled to sleep by the humming of the car), we spent many quiet hours having broken conversations with each other. We drove from Kampong Speu, out to the other side of the country in Kampong Cham, through Tboung Khmum, and back to Phnom Penh.

I’ve tried to learn Khmer while in Cambodia. Normally languages are pretty easy for me to grasp. Par example, je parle français (grossomodo). Some Spanish speakers have thought I can actually hablar español. I can read some Arabic like a first grader. By the end of my month-long stint around Thailand, I could hold basic conversations with people (krup koon kah). In Laos, visit to Isan proved good for me to understand a good amount of things (krup chai de)

But when it comes to Khmer, even though it is of the originating family from which Thai and Laotian stem, I am utterly useless.

Khmer, for me, is incredibly difficult. I cannot for the life of me figure out how to remember the complex pronunciations and complicated consonants that surprise me when I hear people talking. I’ve managed to clutch clumsily around a handful of words - “Hello”, “Thank you”, “Stop”, and “Turn”- but for the most part what words I am taught dribble out of my brain as easily as football statistics. And it infuriates me!

This is especially problematic when in rural Cambodia, where English is not as important as it is in the city. Here, I am in the wrong for not trying to learn more Khmer, and I agree with that – I should be much better at the language by now. Alas, my brain has shut the vaults to Khmer, and my attempts to use Thai words as alternative vocabulary are kind of silly.

One instance while in Kampong Cham that was amusing around my inept Khmer skills was around my breakfast. My driver, bless him, after I rambled on about wanting bobor (aka rice porridge) found a place in the city where I could order it for breakfast. I have discovered a deep love and affection for the comfort food feel I get when eating it. They put ginger and scallions in it, and often meats, which make it basically like eating a nice, creamy, thick soup. 

I go into the restaurant and order a bobor. The waitress, being a good and thorough waitress, started listing off in Khmer the bobor options they had at the restaurant. I panically ask for, “English?”, which gets me a chuckle and more Khmer words thrown at me that lodge into my pride. A meekly repeated request for “Bobor….?” was met with the repeated list of options I couldn’t understand. I started to cluck like a chicken, using my hand to represent a beak, in hope that it would give the effect of my desire to have chicken in my porridge. After a pile of waitresses and patrons finished their giggling at the stupid foreigner’s chicken impression, the waitress gave me a knowing smile and walked away from me.

Soon after, I received my bobor, only with fish instead of chicken. Don’t get me wrong, it was a tasty dish! But after my embarrassing attempt to impersonate a chicken, I felt baffled that my performance was received with an animal that did not make any sounds at all. I went back the next day to try again my request for chicken in my bobor, armed with the word chicken from my caring driver, and I was successful in eating bobor muan.

Another amusing language mishap that happened in the field was a bit more costly for my interviews. Well, I have not confirmed that this is why the complications occurred, but I am assuming that this was the hiccup. 

Anyways. 

So, my name is Kim. Of course, in the Anglophonic world, my name is short for Kimberly, which usually doesn’t cause too much confusion about my identity. In Cambodia, however alarming, I have been mistaken for Korean a couple of times. If you know me, I look in no way Korean, nor Asian by any stretch of the imagination. I burn in 10 minutes, in the shade – my hair is a mix between blond and brown – my hips are most certainly not of their typically sleek physiques. And yet, I have had people ask me to my face if I am indeed Korean, upon hearing my name. It is a phenomenon that floors me every time.

How does this relate to my interviews? My interviews were arranged with the rural districts via email, where my name was indicated as “Kim” (because that is how I identify in correspondences). Kim, it so happens, in addition to being a Korean name, is also a common nickname for a few names in Khmer. It is not, apparently, a common name for visiting Westerners interested in going to rural areas to talk about government. 

Despite my supervisor’s Virak request for a translator for me, I think my name made that important request not register for people. I arrived to each district with a request for translators, and people looked stunned that I was who I was, and that I did not have a translator with me already (or speak fluent Khmer). 

Every district scrambled to find the most English-speaking staff member they had and thrust the poor soul in my direction. Some of the translators were good and knew how to navigate my questions for me in both language. Some of my translators were shaking a little bit as I spoke to them in a very slow, simplified version of English. Some of my translators kept apologizing, which did not boost my faith in their skills. Even so, they all did a decent job in helping me collect my data, and I thanked them for taking time to interpret the conversation between me and groups of government staff.

Oh yes, there’s that other thing, too. I had asked for one-on-one interviews with certain government staff, because it would make my data collection and analysis easier. All of the districts did not understand that, though, and my interview participants would end up collecting a few more relevant staff people to join us in the interview room. Stunned, I decided it was disrespectful to forbid the other people to participate, and my already anxious translators didn’t need to feel more stress with having several different conversations between me and other people (the less I talked, the better). So, in each of my surprise focus groups, I had everyone sign a consent form, and rolled with it. 

By the third surprise focus group, I was hardly surprised.

In the end, I now have twice as many interviews than I had expected, and I was successful in collecting some pretty interesting data from my field visit. Overall, a success.

Other things that I would like to note about my trip into the field for data collection:
  • I am left handed. I know that I am, but I didn’t remember that Obama is, as well. One of my translators remembered that, though, and mentioned it almost immediately after I picked up a pen to write down a note. “OH! You write like Obama!” It took me a few beats to figure out what he meant by that. I remembered some memory from seven years ago when someone mentioned to me that Obama was a southpaw. I wanted to ask him how, in all of the vast ocean of knowledge to remember, did he remember that one pretty obscure fact about POTUS?
  • I was interviewing people about their work around improving rural sanitation. At about half of the places I visited, I was surprised to see male staffers urinating either on/by one of the buildings, or on a neighboring tree on the compound. At one district of these districts I also asked to use the toilet. They hesitated uncomfortably, informing me that their toilet was not working very well. I found this ironic (and unsettling), considering the reason for my visit. I went into the broken toilet and did what I had to do as hygienically as possible. It was an interesting observation to have while working on sanitation-related research.
  • Something I love about Cambodia is the style where women where brightly-colored, fully-matching button-down pajama outfits while out and about in the steamy days. Some of them have penguins or flowers, depending I suppose on the person. They are always colorful and look nicely pressed when I see women in the pajama sets. Sometimes I’ve seen children in pajamas, as well, running around and hopping into motorbikes in superhero patterns. My hypothesis is that pajamas are cool and airy enough for the hot tropical weather…and they do have a certain pleasant air to them. It is unsurprising they are colorful, as everyone had to wear black pajamas during the gruesome Khmer Rouge regime.
  • While we drove, we went by countless weddings on the sides of the road, under wedding tents with vibrant colors and upbeat bands playing. Considering the dreadful heat and dust in the dry season, I asked my driver why weddings seemed so popular right now. He explained that people would rather be hot at a wedding than soaked/flooded by the rainy season, so dry season is the only decent time to celebrate marriage.