Peru, Day Eleven (July 22, 2009)

Ate breakfast of giant, delicious fruit salad covered with muesli and yogurt, served with quite possibly the worst coffee I've ever tasted. Note for future reference: when in Peru, never order the Cafe Moka. Does NOT taste like cafe mocha; tastes like watery coffee mixed with heaping spoonful of bittersweet chocolate cooking powder. Bleah. As El Profesor said, it was an ¨ethnographic experience.¨

Bought our bus tickets to Chiclayo and then went to the plaza to catch our tour to Kuelap. Our group consisted of a young British couple who writes for the TimeOut travel guides, a family of four from the north of France, and our guide Hernando. We all knew just enough of the three languages represented to communicate and have a great time.

The parking area at Kuelap is a 20-minute hike from the ruins. There was a woman offering horseback rides for 5 soles, and I couldn't resist. I´m not sure it was easier than hiking - trying to stay upright on a horse that´s climbing straight uphill on the very edge of a mountain was, uh, challenging - but I loved the experience.

I was stunned when we emerged from the trees and I saw the fortress walls for the first time. I've seen lots of photos, but nothing prepares you for the sheer scale of the place.

We walked all over the fortress visiting the common and noble living areas as well as the apu's (leader´s) house .

The structures are mostly conical, and there are holes in the floors or in the walls where family members were buried so they could be near and keep a close watch.

Bromeliads covered the trees, and hummingbirds zipped about overhead. A shepherd wandered about the ruins trying to round up his llamas. After a couple of hours, we piled back in the van and drove home, stopping at a small restaurant along the way for a late lunch of fried trout, papas fritas, and fried plantains.

Returned to the travel office in the plaza and said our goodbyes. Petrova, the 13-year-old French girl, and I exchanged email addresses so we can practice our English and French with each other. Tomorrow, we´re going to try to find that site I´ve been babbling about for months; it´s only about an hour away, should be accessible by road, and we´ve got the lat-long coordinates. Then we´ll board an overnight bus to Chiclayo at 7:30. We´ll wander about Chiclayo on Friday until it´s time for our 10pm flight to Lima. Then back home Sunday morning!

Peru, Day Ten (July 21, 2009)

Have to geek out for a moment and reveal my closet birdwatching obsession. I cannot believe that I saw a spatula-tailed hummingbird in the garden beneath my balcony this morning. What an outstanding way to start the day.

After breakfast, we traveled by taxi to Chachapoyas. It was a beautiful ride through country that would be a playground for any geologist. We´re staying at the Gran Hotel Vilaya, a dismal but safe place that´s close to the main plaza. After fighting with the laptop for a couple of hours (the advertised ¨free hotel wi-fi¨is a joke), we wandered down to the plaza for lunch. Stopped by the Amazonas office of the INC and had a long chat with the staff archaeologist about the work going on at Kuelap. Then made arrangements with a travel agency for a day trip to Kuelap tomorrow. The internet cafes in this part of the country are maddeningly slow, but I´ll try to post photos once we´re back in Lima on Saturday.

Peru, Day Nine (July 20, 2009)

Awoke early for breakfast of fresh bread, orange marmalade, Andean cheese, papaya juice, and cafe con leche. Hired a mototaxi to drive us to the road nearest one of the surrounding mountains; then we hiked 800m or so to the top.The vistas were spectacular, and we immediately came upon a rock wall that ran across the ridgeline - it's quite possibly pre-Hispanic, but hard to say for sure just at a glance.

We walked the path along the wall until we came to an unusual-looking spot that warranted further investigation. Hay ruinas! We climbed over the wall and found three man-made mounds atop circular masonry walls. The mounds covered a distance of about 45m, and they were roughly equidistant to each other. We took lots of photos and GPS waypoints, and El Professor walked around the site with the GPS unit taking measurements.

Followed a dirt path to the next mountaintop where we broke for lunch. From where we were sitting, we could see endless mountains to our left and Laguna Pomacochas to our right. Not a bad day at the office.

We pressed on, hoping to climb to the next mountain top, but the path vanished. We continued hiking anyway through tangled trees, chest-high bushes covered in flowers, and ankle-grabbing vines that routinely brought us to our knees. Never thought I´d have cause to say this, but a machete would have come in quite handy.

When we finally made it out of the forest and into the sunlight, we abruptly found ourselves on the edge of a deep ravine - there was no way we could make it to the other mountain today. So we forced our way back through the forest until we came to an opening where we could safely work our way down the mountain. When we walked out of the forest, we ran into a farmer and asked him for directions to the road back to town. I can't even imagine what he must have thought when the two filthy gringos magically appeared out of nowhere.

Hiked a couple of miles back to our hotel and enjoyed a dinner of Pollo de Oscar (Oscar does everything around the hotel, including maintaining those crazy-beautiful gardens). For some reason, whenever El Professor explains that I'm a vegetarian, I get pollo. Delicious, but puzzling. Tomorrow, we're off to Chachapoyas and Kuelap!

Peru, Day Eight (July 19, 2009)

The day started off horribly. I woke up in a great deal of pain. I was angry at my body for not cooperating, worried that I might ruin the rest of the trip, and anxious that no one would answer the phone at the only hotel in Pomacochas. We had no choice but to charter a taxi to Pomacochas and hope for the best.

Once the drive began, I stopped worrying about everything. For three hours, I was entranced by the mountains, a continuous, rolling wave of vibrant green forest. I was so relaxed, I even fell asleep for a few minutes, despite the bumpy roads and whiplash-inducing curves.

We arrived in Pomacochas without any trouble, and the Puerto Pumas Inn did have rooms available for us. I'm not exaggerating when I say this place is an oasis. The rooms all have balconies that overlook Laguna Pomacochas, a place I've daydreamed about many a time while staring at photos on Google Earth. Beneath my balcony is a brightly-colored garden where large, metallic green hummingbirds zip about from flower to flower.

After a brief rest, El Professor and I walked down the main street looking for a place to eat dinner. Very little was open since it was Sunday night, so we stopped at a shop and bought Andean cheese, fresh rolls, sugar cookie balls, and jam-filled cakes that tasted like fruity Moon Pies. Ate dinner back at the hotel and reminisced about our friends and family. Now I miss my peeps.

Tomorrow we hike the hills around the lake, where it's likely there are sites on the hilltops. In the meantime, I'm going to curl up under my alpaca-wool blanket, look at the stars over Laguna Pomacochas, and listen to Radiohead. I've been saving my iPod juice so it'll last throughout the trip, but I think tonight calls for a splurge.

Peru, Day Seven (July 18, 2009)

Ate my daily dose of huevos fritos for breakfast and then met the director's friend Wagner in the lobby at 8am. We hired a taxi and drove to Morro de Calzada. Blew a tire on the way, but the taxi driver was a machine, and he had the tire changed in 10 minutes.

Morro de Calzada is a lush tangle of montane forest with some tropical flora thrown in for good measure -- such as ficus, bromeliads, and giant ferns. The forest was spectacular, and the view from the top 2000 feet up was utterly breathtaking. We learned there is an unusual , deep sand formation due east of the Morro that completely changes the ecology. Unfortunately, from that height you could also see patches of the forest burning in every direction. But overall, it's still a stunning, untouched, unexplored landscape.

The only big, fat downer of the day was that I blew my left knee on the descent. Thankfully El Squid, my beloved brace, was with me, so I was able to make it down by bracing the left leg and putting all my weight on the right. Ow, quit it. Tomorrow is a travel day though, so I should be good as new after a day of rest. And enough Tylenol to kill a horse.

As a thank you, we took Wagner to the Mud Bucket where I ate another fabulous meal of paiche (local fish) with garlic and a side of fried yucca. Spent the rest of the afternoon packing for the trip tomorrow and nursing the leg. Not sure what city we'll end up in -- still trying to to decide where we'll have the best luck finding caves that might be worth excavating. Mmm....caves.

Peru, Day Six (July 17, 2009)

Started the day with breakfast of fried eggs, bread, more fresh fruit, orange juice, and cafe con leche. At 8:00, our driver Borr-Borr arrived to take us to Moyobamba.

The drive, again, was beautiful as we wound our way higher and higher into the mountains. We crossed the rivers Hullaga and Mayo, and we shared tangerines Borr-Borr bought from a young girl when we were stopped at a construction zone. But I was reminded of how worrisome these roads can be when I noticed that Borr-Borr made the sign of the cross every time we crossed a new city limit. Of course, that probably had something to do with the fact that he routinely drove 50 kph over the speed limit.

We're staying at the 3-star Hotel Marcoantonio. I can't believe that, yet again, we're in the middle of nowhere and my room has wi-fi. Peru has changed a lot since my first visit here.

Ate lunch at a restaurant Borr-Borr recommended -- La Olla de Barro (literally: The Mud Bucket). It's the first Peruvian restaurant I've seen that has a vegetarian section on the menu, and they served my favorite, favorite, favorite Peruvian dish - lomo saltado, but with tofu ("lomo saltado con carne de soya!"). Lomo saltado is normally made with beef, so this was a treat, and it tasted like bright, shiny magic.

Went straight from lunch to the Instituto Nacional de Cultura (INC) where we met the director for San Martin. Her staff archaeologists gave us a private tour of their museum; afterwards, the director arranged for a friend of hers who's a botanist to take us hiking tomorrow in search of caves!

Peru, Day Five (July 16, 2009)

Awoke early and had an interesting local breakfast -- pineapple, melon, papaya, sweet bread, tamale de pollo, and a strange sausage-like dish that we discovered was a mash of carne, rice, pepper, and spices stuffed in intestines. It was actually quite savory, but the rubbery texture was a bit much.

We caught a mototaxi to the Rio Abiseo National Park office, where we met up with El Professor's former professor, Esteban Alayo. He welcomed us with open arms and promptly ushered us into a truck, in which he and an associate drove us to the park.
But first there was an unexpected stop in the village of Huincungo. Everyone there was gathered in the town plaza watching some kind of program on stage. Beautiful young girls wore homecoming-queen-like crowns and carried bouquets of flowers, while an older man emceed and sang the most off-key version of the Peruvian national anthem imagineable.

Then followed a sweet parade with the beauty queens, all sorts of school children, soldiers, and officials from the park.

We were later told that today was the anniversary of the town's founding.

After the parade, we visited the Centro de Interpretacion for the RANP. It was a small, but nice museum, and the interpretive ranger was knowledgeable and friendly. I could have happily spent all day in the park, but Senor Alayo had to get back to work. They dropped us off at the Restaurante de la Selva just in time for a late lunch. We made arrangements to drive four hours to Moyobamba tomorrow morning, where we'll meet with the director of the National Institute of Culture for the San Martin district. I'm looking forward to the trip. I love driving across this country.

On the Road Again

Gmail isn't working this morning, so I can't send individual emails, but I wanted to post a note saying I'm alive and well. The car is waiting to drive us to Moyobamba, and hopefully I'll find an internet cafe once we arrive. Hasta pronto!

Peru, Day Four (July 15, 2009)

First things first. I have to take a moment to throw some love at Hostal Killari. Two brothers run the place, Manuel and Alejandro; even though it´s only been open for 5 months, they´ve figured out how to run a good operation, and they go out of their way to help - whether it´s making your breakfast at 0:dark:30 so you can catch an early flight or driving like maniacs through Lima to get you to said flight. So next time you´re in Lima, look them up.

Speaking of flights at 0:dark:30, we took one this morning to Tarapoto. Only took about an hour, and then we hired a taxi to take us to Juanjui. The 3 hour drive was heaven - windows down, warm tropical wind blowing through my hair, mountains all around. I´ll take fresh air and a dirt road any day over a flying bus. We drove past picturesque thatched-roof houses, cattle drives, gorgeous tropical flora, and even rice fields along a highway lined with remants of rock falls from the 40-foot-high passes that had been blown out of the mountains. It feels good to get out of the city.

Juanjui is a small village but it has a beautiful hotel - Hotel Capricornia - that´s filled with tropical plants, hammocks, and verandas lined with comfy chairs. The walls in the rooms are made of brick, and the doors are made of beautifully-carved wood. My derriere is staking claim on a hammock as soon as we get back.

Lunch was at Restaurante de la Selva. There was no doubt the fish had just flopped out of the water this morning. It was pounded flat, lightly breaded and fried in some kind of crack. Also gorged on an entire pitcher of papaya juice. I regret nothing. (urp)

OK, weird moment of the day. This internet cafe is now blaring a Spanish version of Unchained Melody. It´s, um, interesting.

Tonight we´re meeting with Estaban Alayo, the administrative director of the Rio Abiseo National Park; tomorrow he´s taking us out in the field. Then off to Moyabamba the following day. I could get used to this.

Peru, Day Three (July 14, 2009)

It was a pretty quiet day because El Profesor had to make phone calls to his contacts down here as well as make arrangements for the rest of the trip. I took advantage of the time to read an article on Pre-Incan archaeology and to study Spanish.

Late in the afternoon, we visited our friend Agosto at Happy Tours. He found us a great rate on plane tickets to the interior; we fly out to Tarapoto in the morning. From there, we drive to Juanjui. We'll plan the rest of the expedition day-by-day, depending on what we find.

Ate a fabulous dinner at Haiti in the heart of Miraflores - fried flounder with tomatoes and white asparagus, drenched in mozzarella cheese. Now I really need to start hiking.

Stay tuned for photos - I'm having trouble uploading them to the laptop, but will hopefully have the issue resolved soon. Hasta pronto!

Peru, Day Two (July 13, 2009)

Utterly exhausted. Finally made it to my hotel room in Miami about 3am but was too wound up to sleep. Checkout time was 11:00, but the thought of spending 12 hours at the airport made me want to cut my head off, so I forked out the $50 penalty to stay in the room until 5:00. To offset the added expense, I ate meals out of the vending machine. Today´s menu: hotel-room coffee, cinnamon roll with 8000g of fat, pretzels, fried plantain chips, and a Snickers. Pretty sure I have scurvy now.

Once at the airport, I splurged on a slice of pizza for dinner at the food court. The place was extremely crowded and before long, a finely-dressed gentleman asked if he could join me. I was surprised to find he was Hilson Baptiste, Minister of Agriculture, Lands, Housing and Environment for Antigua.

We spent half an hour having a wonderful, intense discussion about his job, crops, soil, poverty, and the general state of the environment. He was on his way to a conference of agricultural ministers of the Americas, to be held in Costa Rica. The most striking thing he said was a response to my question, ¨What do you find most satisfying about your job?¨ He replied ¨Watching poor people become successful¨, and he told me about a co-op of 240 women who started with nothing but, with a little government assistance, have developed a multi-million dollar poultry operation.

We spoke of the importance of developing profitable agricultural models that benefit local economies while preserving environmental integrity. It was a relief to hear a government official use the word ¨stewardship¨. He mentioned that there was a group of university students on Antigua studying turtle populations, so I asked if he saw a need for other university research projects. He said that there are several historically important archaeological sites on the island that he would like to see preserved and carefully opened to the public. He gave me his card and invited me to do the work, saying that anyone I brought from the university would be his personal guests and that he would introduce us to the appropriate officials, including the prime minister. I thanked him and said that I would email him once I returned to the States and had a chance to talk to my professors. What an amazing opportunity that would be for CSU.

El Profesor´s flight arrived without any trouble, and we hopped on the 11:35 flight to Lima. Practically fell asleep on my dinner tray (the poor flight attendant had to yank it out from underneath me) and slept like a baby until we landed. Now we're at our lovely guesthouse, Hostal Killari, about to have breakfast and map out the week's itinerary.

Peru, Day One (July 12, 2009)

It's official. I am the jinx. On my first visit to Peru, a transportation strike forced us to bribe our way out of the country. Coming back from Cambodia, the passport computers died, so we were stuck on the runway for 4 hours and then had to sleep on the floor of LAX with 10,000 of our closest friends. In Paris this March, a bomb scare closed our terminal. And now this.

Ferocious thunderstorms kept us on the taxiway in Atlanta for 3 hours last night. We arrived at the Lima gate in Miami at 11:30p for our 11:35 flight, but the cow at the American Airlines counter refused to let us board, even though the flight was grounded until 12:20. It was total chaos. My professor was stranded in D.C., so I was on my own and more than a little unsettled.

Those of us who were refused passage ran to the Customer Service counter only to find that AA doesn't take responsibility for bad weather. It didn't take long to bond under the circumstances, and soon I was friends with a married couple and a mother & daughter from Peru, an elderly woman from Brazil, and an attorney from Bolivia. We talked our way into "Distressed Passenger" vouchers for nearby hotels and headed toward the airport shuttle together.

Even though we all received vouchers, they were inexplicably for different hotels; but we decided to stick together and help one another out of the mess. The Senora from Brazil was particularly befuddled by the situation since she spoke neither Spanish nor English, and we refused to leave her at the airport alone. The attorney sweettalked our shuttle driver into dropping her off at the Wyndham even though the driver worked for the Regency. My voucher for the Regency was the best deal, so I convinced the concierge to give the same discount to the rest of the travellers. I let everyone use my U.S. cell phone to notify relatives, and they used their Peruvian cell phone to notify my hotel in Lima.

Everyone helped in whatever way they could, and pretty soon, panic gave way to laughter, and the friendly conversation put everyone at ease. Turns out, the attorney is the grandson of Teresa Gisbert and Jose de Mesa, who were among the first to document the art and archaeology of Bolivia. It's a wild, interesting little world we live in.

So thanks to Patricia, Manuel, Juan, Teresa, and Maria for reminding me that you can still depend on the kindness of strangers. Now, if I could just depend on American Airlines to deliver my missing backpack to Lima in the morning!

Same same, but diffferent

Here's a column I wrote for the paper after we got back from Cambodia

People in Southeast Asia have a pidgin English saying that tourists have clung to.

Same same, but different.

It's practically a national slogan in Cambodia, where I've just come from. It's on billboards. It's screen printed on T-shirts and every product imaginable in street markets, where you can buy barbecued tarantulas, fresh produce, or a pirated copy of the new "Simpsons" movie for $3. One guest house one-upped the slogan, claiming "Same same, but better."

Which reminds me, I found myself looking a lot at girls' legs while spending two weeks in the country.

See, my wife and I were trying to figure out if it was OK for her to wear short pants around in a land that still holds extremely conservative values with regard to women.

It's a country where public displays of affection are frowned upon. Men and women aren't supposed to openly even give each other a peck on the cheek. We saw an entire family of five riding together on a 125-cc motorbike -- seriously, everyone drives motorbikes in Cambodia -- and the two women were riding side-saddle, which is considered more tasteful.

Things are changing there. Young girls are starting to wear shorts, and I even saw a couple holding hands on the streets of Phnom Penh. But these people belong to a new generation, and the folks we were interacting with probably didn't like them any more than they like Americans tromping all over their ancient temples.

We were definitely going to walk the temples, but my wife decided, for the most part, to forgo the shorts.

We spent a few days in the country's beach town of Sihanoukville, where the usually emerald waters of the Gulf of Thailand were a silty blue-gray from the heavy rains of the wet season.

For the better part of three days, my traveling friends and I would sit in a beachfront bar, eating a dish called fish amok and drinking Mekong buckets of Red Bull, Coca-Cola and what probably passes for whiskey. Then we would plunge into the crashing sea.

The water was particularly rough one afternoon, with the waves crashing onto Occheuteal Beach irregularly, but frequently, from two directions. You could duck under one wave and come up just in time to get plastered
by another.

It was great fun.

My friend Phil and I were bodysurfing. My legs ached from trying to fight the strong current pulling me sideways. I was out of breath from diving under and over waves in order to get deep enough for a good ride.

I caught a good wave and coasted in to knee-deep water only to find that two others had ventured into the water with us.

One was a naked Cambodian boy who looked about 6 but was probably 10. The other was a grown Cambodian woman, who was wearing a full dress.

All of us were taking ragged, open-mouthed breaths and waiting for the next onslaught from the gulf.

This was carpe diem moment for all of us. Our differences had been washed away. Our skin color didn't matter. Our skin covering didn't matter.

We were different. But we were same same.

Cambodia, Day 13 (Aug. 10, 2007)

Took the bus from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh. Once again, seven people and ten backpacks made it to the station in a Camry.* The poor driver is going to need new shocks after toting us around.

Speaking of shocks, our bus could've used some. I don't know what cow/pig/motorbike we ran over, but after hitting a huge bump in the road, we bounced our way back to Phnom Penh, forward and backward like a see-saw. Strangely enjoyable experience despite the lunatic, horn-blowing driver with a death wish.** Okay Guesthouse sent tuk-tuks for us ("Mr. Brad!"), so our second trip to Phnom Penh was much more pleasant than the first.

After getting settled in our rooms, we went to the Russian Market to replace Brad's backpack, in which we had just discovered a large tear that couldn't be repaired. On the way back, Map asked if we wanted to make a donation of food to an orphanage. Of course we said yes, so we stopped at a market and bought a 50 kilo bag of rice as well as a bag of soap. We drove to the CamboKids orphanage ( and found 147 orphans living in abject poverty, but they were all sweet, bright and outgoing. A tiny, 10-year-old boy shyly followed me around the whole time, and I spoke to him in my broken Khmer. When it was time to leave, he stared at the floor and waved goodbye without looking at me. I opened my arms and he flung himself onto me, giving me an enormous bear hug. I've never had maternal instincts, but leaving that child behind was one of the toughest things I've ever done.***

For dinner, we ate at Friends (, a restaurant dedicated to saving and educating street children. The six of us sat around the table sharing tapas -- everything from fresh fish to pumpkin soup -- and we washed it all down with mint citrus coolers. It was the perfect ending to our trip.**** We head home tomorrow while Meg, Eric, Phil, and Maya travel to Kratie and then to Laos. I'm sad to leave, but hopefully we'll be back one day. Chum riep leah, Cambo.

Brad's footnotes:

* We've since bought a Corolla. I can't help but thinking the surprising versatility of this Toyota somehow contributed, psychologically, to this decision.

** It might've been one of those water buffaloes. Whatever we hit was big. The bus's engine light came on afterward, and I swear to god the driver nudged his buddy sitting beside him, pointed to the light and laughed.

*** We'd first stopped at a market next to the orphanage to buy some rice and toilet paper to give to the place. I stayed with the tuktuks to make sure our bags weren't stolen. The little orphan kids started climbing all over the cart like it was a set of monkey bars. It's at this point that a creepy old man comes up to me, smiling, and asks, "Do you like leetle children?" Not sure if he was trying to sell me a child or sell me an
experience with one. Ick.
**** This unfortunately named place will have you singing "I'll Be There for You" for days. But the food is so darned good. Totally worth it. (Stupid Rembrandts.)

Cambodia, Day 12 (Aug. 9, 2007)

Another glorious rainstorm pounded our metal and thatched roof all night long. We've eaten breakfast, made bus arrangements to Phnom Penh, and the rain is still falling hard. The yard of our hotel is covered in about three inches of water. I'm sitting in our open doorway in a wicker chair, completely content. I'm glad to have a little down time to reflect on the trip.

Here are the things I will miss about Cambo: dragonfruit, banana shakes, the Gulf of Thailand, driving past Angkor Wat in the morning, tuk-tuks, Mr. Vanna and Su, well-mannered stray dogs and cats, the second-floor balcony of the HSH Guesthouse, bullfrogs, water buffalo, incense, amok, and waking up to the crowing of roosters.*

Here are the things I will NOT miss about Cambo: beggars, the smell of rotting garbage, land mine signs, brushing your teeth with day-old bottled water, raw sewage in the Gulf of Thailand, aggressive tuk-tuk drivers, and creepy ex-pats.**

I'd give anything if we could stay with the kids and travel through Laos and Thailand. I'm not ready to leave yet.

Brad's footnotes
* To this list, I would add only the ability to order Pastis by the glass and bodysurfing. And I would've put amok higher on the list.
** This about covers it for me, too. Though, to be fair, I discovered the Pastis thanks to a creepy ex-pat.

Cambodia, Day 11 (Aug. 8, 2007)

Today was our tour of Preah Sihanouk Ream National Park. We took a boat ride upriver for about an hour in a covered catamaran. We spotted a red-headed kingfisher and a family of fish-eagles. The ride was particularly enjoyable because we sat next to a French family, and I was able to practice my French. It's as terrible as I remember it, but they were friendly and kind.

We docked the boat -- sort of -- and waded the remaining 50 feet to shore.* Then we hiked for 40 minutes through lush, humid jungle to a secluded beach** where we swam in the churning Gulf of Thailand for 45 minutes. Then back to the dock where we ate lunch of BBQ fish and warm Coke. The boat ride back was just as beautiful except for the torrential downpour that soaked us and our gear completely.

After dropping off our things at the hotel, I ran across the street to Dara's for a cold banana shake. It was the most delicious thing I've ever had; nothing beats a good brain freeze on a hot, Cambodian summer day.

* This wasn't too big of a deal. Many of the fishers in the communities we boated past didn't bother to use boats to check their traps. They simply waded out to them -- often a hundred of feet from shore.
** We were told they sometimes see elephants here. We didn't, though we saw a huge water buffalo. Not quite the same, since it seemed to be a domesticated beast belonging to one of the families in the scattered huts we passed.

Cambodia, Day 10 (Aug. 7, 2007)

Ate breakfast at our Guesthouse -- lemon honey crepes for me; potato puff, bacon, eggs, toast, juice and coffee (aka "The American") for Brad. Then Brad and the gang walked to Serendipity Beach* and back while I sat in a papasan chair at Dara's. The fever has finally broken, but I'm still feeling weak, and Dara's was just what the doctor ordered. I sat in that chair for seven straight hours with only a short swim in the Gulf to break up the day. I took a magazine with me, but every time I opened it, I thought, "I could be staring at the Gulf of Thailand." So I did. Despite the steady stream of beggars, children, pedicure hawkers, and musicians, it really was quite relaxing.

The guys all wanted to go to the Snake House for dinner, even though we knew it was a tourist trap with crummy food. We should have known something was amiss when the tuktuk driver gave lots of excuses why it would cost $5. After some discussion, we decided to pay $10 round trip, but only if he waited for us. That's when the fun began.

First stop: the base of a dark hill with a LONG flight of stairs up. Meg says, "Snake House at top?" TukTukMan says "Yes." Meg, Eric, and Phil ran ahead to make sure it was open before we began the climb. They returned with the news that we were at Chez Claude's, not the Snake House. TukTukMan laughed and laughed. "Oh, you want SnakeHouse. That sound like Chez Claude." No, that sounds like Dump-Dumb-Tourists-at-Pricey-Restaurant-Where-I-Get-Kickback-And-I'll-Go-Away-Before-They-Come-Back-Downstairs. We hopped back into the tuk-tuk just as TukTukMan says "It cost more for Snake House." Wrong. We made our sentiments fairly clear, for which we were rewarded with a bumpy, unpleasant, circuitous drive past a shanty town with abandoned buildings where homeless people were hovering over burning barrels. For free, he threw in an awkward stop at a traffic circle where we thought we might possibly be tossed or mugged.** We did finally reach the Snake House only to discover it catered to a more, um, masculine, Russian clientele. Brand new humvees were parked out front, and loud dance music poured out of the bar area called The Snake Pit where Phil discovered you could actually buy your own dancing girl. Brad ordered the Chicken Kiev, and I ate vareniki, a potato ravioli. When in Rome...

The room was filled with large tanks full of venomous snakes, and many of the tables had cranky-looking snakes under the tabletop glass; there was also a crocodile on a leash.*** The overhead television blared Fashion Week coverage from Sao Paolo in Russian. Pretty sure we were the only non-Russian (and probably non-mafia) customers there. As we left, we passed the saddest birds I've ever seen in captivity. Two scarlet macaws in one cage looked as if they desperately wanted out. In summary, we ate Russian food in the Cambodian jungle surrounded by snakes with a waitstaff:patron ratio of 8:1 (all gorgeous Cambodian women who seemed puzzled by our presence.****)

Just to reaffirm that TukTukMan had been screwing with us earlier, we zipped home in no time using only three major roads. The trip home was uneventful except for the parade of 30 sweet rally cars that forced us off the road. I really do love this place.
Brad's footnotes
* In keeping with the spirit of irony, I walked barefoot -- a mistake -- on the beach where drains from businesses ran right down the beach and into the Gulf. I remember a paralyzing fear when I stepped down and felt something puncture the skin of my heel. So, for future reference, bring your flip-flops.
** She's not exaggerating. There were no streetlights, traffic or commercial development at this
traffic circle. Nevertheless, our driver stopped here for a few minutes. I thought, either he's lost or he's waiting for his friends, the muggers.
*** You'll note there are no pictures from the Snake House. None of us had the guts to take any in front of Bruno-witz and Left-ovsky. You can find some here, though.
**** So, not a bad place, really.

Cambodia, Day Nine (Aug. 6, 2007)

While walking to the pharmacy, we noticed the streets were packed with school children and adults alike waving Cambodian flags and pictures of the king. The pharmacist told us the king was due in town this morning.

At 12:30, we caught the bus to Sihanoukville. Meg wins the "Fastest Woman in Cambodia" award for jumping over a cooler, a small child, and three Cambodian men when someone walked off with her backpack.* Particularly impressive, since she had just taken a sleeping pill for the trip. Thankfully, it was only a bus employee moving it to another cargo area.

The bus ride was beautiful, much more so than the ride to Phnom Penh. Misty mountains snaked** across the landscape, towering over rice fields and thatched-roofed homes.***

Having had beautiful weather for the last week and a half, the heavens opened up just as we pulled into town. We were soaked, and there wasn't a tuktuk in sight -- only motos. I cornered a gentleman with a TAXI sign and asked if he could take six people. He, of course, said yes. We envisioned a Toyota Land Cruiser; we did not, however, envision a Toyota Camry. In case you're wondering, a Camry can, in fact, hold 7 people and 10 backpacks. After checking out a couple of hotels, we settled on the Markara, a decent place for $10/night, right across from Occheutal Beach.****

By the time we all got settled (and dry), it was late afternoon, so we walked across the street to Dara's for dinner. Brad and I split an order of fish and chips, which turned out to be barracuda. I'm very excited to have eaten barracuda. We spent the rest of the evening there, sprawled out on papasan chairs, listening to the sounds of the Gulf of Thailand.

Brad and Jenn's footnotes
* Tony Hawk would've been proud. I'm not a skater, but I'm pretty sure I witnessed her perform an ollie-to-kickflip-half-nelson-organ-grinder. Or something like that.
** Fitting choice of verbs, considering what lie in store for us in a day or so. Stay tuned.
*** Also, we weren't so close to the toilets.
**** Suggested slogan: "Come here to evade your country's legal prosecution and never be found!"

Killing Fields, Day Eight (Aug. 5, 2007)

Jenn was out of commission with her "sinus infection" (a.k.a "Cambodian Death Flu" or possibly "Hemorrhagic Dengue Fever"*) when the rest of us bused about 45 minutes down the little two-lane highway to Choeung Ek, probably the most famous of the killing fields.

The killing fields were basically places with lots of pits for the poorly buried bodies of the victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide. To oversimplify, they killed everyone in the upper class, everyone in the middle class, and anyone with any education. Those were the threats. And just like that, poof! went the bright stars of an entire culture.

If Tuol Sleng, the day before, was the kidney punch then Choeung Ek was the knockout blow. A tall stuppa held stories and stories of skulls of reclaimed victims. But nearby was a lake, under which there were many more bodies that they're just going to leave in their water graves. Underfoot, on dirt paths, you'll find bits of tooth and bone slowly weathering to powder.

We hired a tour guide, mostly to throw some money at a kid. Writing this two years later, the only thing I can remember that he told us was that when money started tightening up for the Khmer Rouge, they started saving bullets by executing victims with the serrated edges of a sort of palm tree that grew on site.

Despite all this, it somehow feels like a peaceful place now. There's a sort of sorrowful, emotional blanket covering the place, thicker than air. I debated not taking photos at all. But I took boatloads of them. I threw a couple up on Wikimedia Commons and on the Wikipedia page on the fields, free for folks to use. I don't know why. I think I just want people to acknowledge the horror. If we don't learn from the past, we're doomed to repeat it, and all that.

Anyway, here's the saddest video slide show I've ever made. (That's The Decemberists singing "Shankill Butchers" in the background. The song is about some maniacs in Ireland, but it's shocking to me how fitting the lyrics are to the Rouge's actions.)

Jenn's footnote:
* There were actually signs all over Siem Reap warning of an outbreak of this delightful sounding disease.

Cambodia, Day Eight (Aug. 5, 2007)

Miserable Cambodian Death Fever has set in. Stayed in bed. Hate hate hate Phnom Penh. Can't wait to leave for the beach tomorrow.*

Brad's footnote
* I'll save you any photographs. You're welcome.

Cambodia, Day Seven (Aug. 4, 2007)

Feeling a little better about the world today. We were all packed and ready to leave by 8:00 this morning, and we walked a mile through Phnom Penh until we found a suitable hotel. Now staying at the Okay Guesthouse for $10/night. The food at the restaurant is great, ridiculously cheap, and we can charge it to our room. We've hired a tuk-tuk driver named Map (pronounced Mahwp)* who is going to take us to the Killing Fields tomorrow. Assuming I get over this terrible sinus infection.

We saw the Royal Palace and the National Museum today; even though they were beautiful, I wasn't terribly excited about them. The whole morning felt like we were just marking items off a tourist's checklist.
Phnom Penh isn't a scary place, but it's big and dirty, and I don't like being here.

After lunch at the Guesthouse, we went to the Genocide Museum at Tuol Sleng.** S-21, as it was known during the rule of the Khmer Rouge, was a high school that was converted to interrogation and torture chambers. I didn't know what to expect; I didn't know if I would cry, pass out, or vomit. Turns out it's none of the above. I felt empty, as if I had checked my soul at the entrance. I stood at the doorway to the first room for a long time before entering. The tiles were still covered in brownish-red blood stains. There was a metal bed frame and several simple torture devices. Funny how, as technologically advanced as we've become, only the most basic tools are needed to destroy a human being.***

In every room was an enlarged photo of the last victim found there -- in the condition they were found. I stared intently at each photo but couldn't really process them. The more I walked through the complex, the emptier and more alone I felt.

The first floor chambers were spacious compared to those on the upper floors. People were confined like cattle in wooden enclosures that measured maybe 2' x 5'. And just to make sure no one committed suicide -- lest the Khmer Rouge be denied the pleasure of killing -- barbed wire nets ran along the front of the building.

In another section of the complex, enormous displays were covered in photos of victims. The Khmer Rouge were meticulous about documenting every stage of torture. I was shocked to see how many of them were extremely young children who couldn't possibly have been enemies of the state. I say that, but it was often children who were the executioners. Maybe one day I'll understand how a group of people could turn so cannibalistically against itself. But not today.

Brad's footnotes
* "Mop." She's being kind. It was just like mop.
** Yay!??
*** Remember this. It's important later.

Cambodia, Day Six (Aug. 3, 2007)

The day began nicely enough. Checked e-mail and had breakfast of fruit salad with yogurt and muesli, eggs, baguette, tea, and mango juice. Then we walked around the market one last time before catching the bus to Phnom Penh.

I had been looking forward to the bus ride, but that quickly changed. It was monotonous and nauseating. Hut, hut, hut, rice field, water buffalo. Repeat continuously for five long hours.

When we arrived, the Royal Guesthouse van picked us up, which was merciful; otherwise, we'd have fought through the screaming, mad sea of tuk-tuk drivers.* At the Guesthouse, we were unexpectedly told that there were no rooms for us, despite our reservation. But "conveniently," the hotel owner's nephew had rooms for us a few blocks away. It was dark and beginning to rain, so we took the awful rooms. An old, American man and a hooker were getting acquainted in the lobby as we checked in.** We quickly discovered our toilet was leaking from underneath into an open drain, so there was a lovely river of toilet water in the middle of our floor.*** I'm not sure which is worse -- our nasty bathroom or Meg and Eric's bedroom window that's pouring water down the wall next to their bed.

We've decided to split up into two teams in the morning -- one to find a better hotel and one to stay behind, guarding our stuff. I hate Phnom Penh. It is a cesspool. The only bright spot of the night was our comical exit from a tuk-tuk in the torrential rain, like six clowns from a miniature car. We're going to see the National Museum, the Silver Pagoda, and the Killing Fields. Then we're getting on the first bus out of this hellhole.****

Brad's footnotes
* It was kind of like the selling floor at the NYSE, actually.
** They were, at this moment, only playing pool. No, not a euphemism.
*** I pointed out that, technically, this was clean water.
**** Spoiler alert: We learned, the next day, when symptoms became clearer, that Jenn had actually become ill at this point, which possibly explains the bad attitude. I mean, Phnom Penh is a cesspool and all. But such anger....

Cambodia, Day Five (Aug. 2, 2007)

Woke up early and sat on our balcony writing, listening to the roosters crow. Had breakfast of hot tea, potato omelette and a baguette.

We made arrangements for Mr. Vanna and Su to drive us to the Tonle Sap Lake. We thought we would be going through the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary, but it turns out we only chartered a boat to the floating village of Chong Kneas. The village was scenic, when you weren't overwhelmed by the smell of fish and rotting garbage,* but it wasn't quite what we expected. Oh well, no point in being a spoiled, whining tourist. They truly need the $15, and we learned about fishing and about life in the rural village from our young captain who spoke excellent English. The village has a primary and secondary school,** but the older students take a bus into Siem Reap every morning to attend high school. The children were adorable, and one 5-year-old girl stole my heart when she blew a kiss to us as our boat pulled away from the dock.

We had another great meal at an ex-pat restaurant called The Red Piano. (I can't believe how much weight I've put on in less than a week.***) I had Mekong fish in lime-cream sauce, and Brad had a chicken amok sandwich on a toasted baguette.

We had no plans after lunch, so I asked Mr. Vanna to drive us to Artisans d'Angkor and Chantiers-Ecoles silk farm. The school works with teachers all over the country to bring poor, rural students with artistic ability to Siem Reap for a one-year training program. The deaf-mute students learn to paint silk, and other students learn stone and wood working and silk weaving. The school is self-sufficient, running off profits from the store.****

After visiting the school in town, we drove 30 minutes out in the country to the silk farm. We saw the cultivation of mulberry trees, silkworm feeding (they eat for three days and rest for one), spinning of the cocoons (you can tell a worm is ready to spin when it turns yellow), separating of the thread, and dyeing and weaving of the silk. The outer silk on the cocoon makes coarser, raw silk, and the soft thread the worm weaves while it's inside the cocoon for two weeks makes fine silk.*****

Back at the hotel, we said goodbye to Mr. Vanna and Su, thanking them for their good advice.****** We learned a great deal from Mr. Vanna -- especially sitting in the courtyard at Artisans d'Angkor. He's a father of six who used to be a farmer, but he had to give up farming when he could no longer support his family. He knew no English when he began driving tuktuks three years ago, but he started reading English workbooks. He talked of how frightening it used to be, approaching foreigners when he couldn't communicate. He's been seriously studying English with a friend every night for the last four months, and it's incredible how much he's learned. I know very few people in the U.S. who would work so hard for so little money.

I'm constantly reminded of how spoiled and lucky I am, and if I don't take full advantage of the opportunities I've been given -- which I've certainly done nothing to deserve -- then I'm not worth a damn.*******

Brad's footnotes
* Not in that order.

** And a floating basketball court!

*** Not as much as you might believe from reading these journal entries, bookended with lush descriptions of meals.
**** If you visit, save room in the suitcase to bring something back. It's not cheap, but the cause is wonderful. That said, you won't believe the cost to ship stuff directly home, and buying online from home, the prices are much higher.
***** She's trying to spare you the story about how the locals convinced me to eat a boiled silkworm by saying they taste like coconut. They don't. They taste like gooey worm.

****** Actually we bought them a couple of beers and hung out with them. It was Phil's idea. They seemed to really enjoy it.

******* Hear, hear.

Cambodia, Day Four (Aug. 1, 2007)

It's 4 a.m., and I'm wide awake. Silly me, I didn't think Melatonin was necessary last night; now I'm up listening to a symphony of bullfrogs, birds and insects. The frogs sound like a single note on a cello played over and over again for hours.

Had breakfast at Star Rise again, but this time I had banana pancakes and a pineapple shake. Then our tuktuk drivers* took us to Banteay Srei, a gorgeous pink temple that has the most intricate carvings at Angkor. It was beautiful but claustrophobic. It's an unusual small-scale structure with tiny doorways, and most of it has been roped off to protect the carvings; so we were trapped on the exterior path with what felt like thousands of Japanese tourists.** Big score of the trip -- huge temple rubbing for $8.***

On the way back to town, we stopped at the Land Mine Museum. There were still active land mines on site, and it was a frightening reminder of what the Cambodians live with every day. Aki Ra, who started the museum, has deactivated over 50,000 mines and is responsible for disabling more than half of the mines in the Siem Reap area. He's done this with a plumber's wrench, a vice, and a steam pot.**** The museum takes in land-mine victims -- mostly children -- and gives them an education. They're trying to break the beggar culture; until now, it was the only option for the maimed and disfigured.

We ate lunch at a shack across the street from East Mebon. I had fried noodles with eggs and veggies. Afterward, we walked to the temple, on the corners of which stood giant elephant statues. This place used to be a reservoir for the city, and the temple itself was an island. The setting was beautiful, overlooking the jungle and rice fields, and the design of the steps allowed us to climb all over the structure. I enjoyed visiting one of the lesser-known, distant temples because we practically had the place to ourselves.

Our last temple in Angkor was Neak Pean. It was made up of one large square pond surrounded by four smaller square ponds (one on each side). Each side pond represented one of the elements -- earth, air, fire and water -- which appeared as a stone fountain in an interior altar. The fountains took the form of man (earth), lion (fire), elephant (water),***** and horse (air). We ended the day with a fabulous meal of massaman curry at the Khmer Kitchen.

Brad's footnotes
* That's right. We got back in the tuktuks after the events of the day before.
** She's not being figurative. There were at least a thousand Japanese tourists, and the place was so small that we did feel many of them.
*** Temple rubbing. Not some weird frottage fantasy. It's a big sheet of rice paper with a charcoal imprint of one of the carvings. It's awesome.
**** Full disclosure: Aki Ra was forced as a child to join the Khmer Rouge and plant many, many land mines. That's why he's made it his mission to remove as many as he can now and to help their victims.
***** Yeah, I don't get elephant=water either. Not when there's, you know, fish around.

Cambodian salesmanship

The beggar children get all passive aggressive when they realize you're not going to buy their water, postcards, photocopied "books," or bracelets. After lunch on Day Three, a girl approaches Phil and says, "You buy bracelet for your girlfriend." Not a question, mind you. And keep in mind Phil's a big fella. (He's the one holding the dragonfruit two posts down.) When he didn't buy one for Maya, the girl wanders off, but not before saying, "You buy bracelet for your boyfriend."

Next day, I told a girl I wouldn't buy her pack of 10 postcards.

"Why?" she says.

"I don't need one."

"You don't need one, you need 10," she says.

I laughed. "I don't need 10 either."

"You don't need 10. You need 20," she says. Cute kid.


Later that day, at a public bathroom, a boy asks Jenn to buy a Chinese lover's lock toy. "No thank you," she says. But he thinks she said, "Nothing."

"Nothing!" he shouts. "I sell you nothing! Nothing is $1."