12/06/2011

Blog End

Ok, let's get this out of the way right off the bat: Yes, it's a geeky Lord of the Rings reference. More to the point, it's the end of the blog.

It's been fun. Thanks for reading.

9/14/2011

The taste of home

No matter where you go in the world there are certain American products you will always find. I have never been anywhere where you can't buy a Coke. I have had discussions with other travelers about whether there is anywhere Coke isn't sold. Our best guess was North Korea. We were wrong. I met someone who travelled to Pyongyang as a tourist. He was able to buy a Coke there.

Maybe we should put the CEO of Coca-Cola in charge of international relations.

Pringles are everywhere. And Snickers bars. When I was traveling by train through Russia there were several stops long enough for us to get off the train and walk around. There were always women there with carts selling Coke, Snickers and Pringles. In Siberia. At 4 a.m.

One big surprise was finding Snyder's pretzels on the road. When I was growing up you could only buy them within close proximity to the factory in Hanover, PA. I did see Snyder's while I was traveling. I have been in some of the biggest and most cosmopolitan cities in the world. Where did I find my favorite pretzels from home?

Vientiane, Laos.

The pace of life in Laos is the slowest I've ever seen, and I mean that as a strong compliment. Vientiane is the capital of the country, but it's hard to believe it's the capital of anything. It's a sleepy city of about 200,000 people. If I were more ambitious I would prove my guess that it's among the smallest capital cities in the world.

There isn't much there. But you can buy Snyder's pretzels there. I was flabbergasted. I found them again in Vietnam. Not in Saigon or Hanoi (although it's possible they're there), but in Mui Ne, a tiny little beach town with literally one road.

I have see McCormick spices for sale in various places. It is the biggest spice manufacturer in the US. They are produced almost literally across the street from my last job in the US. When the wind was right we could smell the spices on the wind. Prices here are exorbitant -- $4.50 for a small container of garlic salt -- so I have never bought any.

Last year my parents sent me a care package. One thing they included was a tin of the iconic Chesapeake Bay seasoning concoction, Old Bay. While I do shop at local markets, there are some things I always buy at western-style supermarkets.

I was flabbergasted to find this at Pencil, a big supermarket near my school.


Old Bay.

In Cambodia.

I didn't think it was sold anywhere outside the Bay region. I would have thought it more likely that I'd see a herd of unicorns in Cambodia than find Old Bay on a supermarket shelf. (Sorry for the poor picture lighting. I used my phone in bright supermarket fluorescent lighting.)

5/24/2011

Home Sweet Home

Through the magic of Google Earth -- one of the coolest things ever -- I can show you where I live. This is Phnom Penh.


The turquoise circle in the bottom left is where I live now. The circle in the far opposite corner is where my first apartment was. The big box beneath it is the Royal Palace. I could see it from my kitchen window. The circle in the center is where I work. It's easy to see my commute. I drive parallel to the bottom of the picture on Mao Tse Toung Blvd, make a left onto Monivong Blvd, make a right onto Street 214 and I'm there. It usually takes about 10 minutes.

The smaller box on the right of the image is the Koh Pich footbridge. This is where the stampede happened during the Water Festival, during which nearly 400 people lost their lives. I started a post about that, but every time I try to go back to it I quickly lose interest. It's just not a fun thing to write about.

The yellow circle at the top is where I hope to move next month.

The river closest to the Royal Palace is the Tonle Sap River, which I've written about before because it's the only river in the world that changes direction. You can see the tip of a peninsula in the top right corner. The river on the other side is the Upper Mekong, which joins the Tonle Sap River and the Bassac River (which isn't visible in the photo but comes in from the right side) to form the Lower Mekong, which curves around to the bottom of the photo.

5/03/2011

Nice gym, bad location

I've been looking into joining a gym. Someone mentioned a club I didn't know about so I looked it up on the yellow pages.

Here it is

You don't have to live in Cambodia to know something is wrong with the map.


Those clearly aren't Cambodian place names. They clearly aren't even Asian. They're Swedish! Oops.

I want exercise but it can be so time consuming. If I want to work out for an hour I have to factor in time for showering and changing clothes. Then there's the the 40-hour roundtrip flight to Sweden...

4/24/2011

Not a Baltimore address

I recently moved into a new apartment. For reasons I won't bore you with, I only plan on staying there for three months. It's a nice enough place, but a bit out of the way by Phnom Penh standards. One day traffic was particularly bad and it took me almost fifteen minutes to get to work!

One my American colleagues who lives in the same building pointed out the irony in our address. Most of the streets here have a number and a name. The street number is 245. The street name is Mao Tse-Toung.

I am living on a street named after Chairman Mao.

You know, the guy who starved 60 million of his own people to death during the Great Leap Forward? I know we're all big fans. It was another one of those moments when I took a mental step back and realized how things that are so different from home have become normal.

It could be worse. I could be living on Kim Il-Sung (Street 289). I don't think there is a Stalin Street.

The street names are vestiges of Cambodia's fairly recent communist past. My street is one of the biggest thoroughfares in the city. (For the folks back home, think of Charles Street or Pratt Street.) This makes sense since you can make a convincing argument that, due to the amount of development and financial aid, China owns Cambodia.

The city is almost completely flat. It tickles me to no end that the highest point in town, Wat Phnom, is a 30-meter high hill. And it's man-made. When they paved the streets here they give exactly zero thought to grading. Maybe they don't worry about it because they assume it's not a problem given the flat terrain. What's more likely is they just don't think about it at all.

A friend of mine told me about how when he first moved here he got what he thought was a great deal on a house. He signed the lease in the dry season. When the rainy season rolled around the street was always under a foot of water. It was a great house. He just couldn't get in or out. I had been warned, then, that one thing to ask about when renting a new place was flooding. Surely this wouldn't be a problem on one of the city's main streets...

Last night I had plans for my usual Saturday night out. A big storm rolled through, so I had to wait out the rain. I also had to wait for the floods to subside. I'm living on one of the biggest streets in the city and there was over a foot of water.

Here's the kicker: It was just my block! From the balcony I could see in both directions. I could see the street past the traffic lights on each corner. Past the traffic lights? No water. In front of my apartment? The Amazon. It would have taken just a few truckloads of dirt to bring the block up to grade, had anyone bothered to think about it.

I had to roll up my pants, ride my moto in flip-flops and then change into grown-up shoes when I got to the night club, all just to drive through one flooded block. Ah, life in Southeast Asia...

I certainly don't mean to imply that this is a catastrophe or major hardship. You know if you live in Southeast Asia that you will have to deal with rain and flooding. Cambodia doesn't have to deal with earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, or tornadoes. Every once in a while I'm mildly inconvenienced when I want to go out. I can live with that. On Mao Tse Toung Street.

4/08/2011

Me no want massah

I've written a lot about one of the love/hate features of Sihanoukville, the beach town here: the army of people selling on the beach, mostly children. I usually go to the beach alone so I enjoy talking to the kids. Sometimes it gets to be a bit much. With most of them I can say, "I want quiet now. Come see me later, OK?" Most of them respond to kindness in kind.

The ones I simply can't bear are the older women who give massages and manicures. Or "massah" as they say here. There are dozens of them. Their rate of success is very close to zero. They simply will not leave you alone or take no for an answer. I have been to the beach so many times that the people who work there know me. I'm not bragging. It's simple math. You spend a hundred days on the beach or whatever and people learn your face.

I can generally get rid of the people selling fruit or bracelets or sunglasses or whatever with a smile and a simple "ottay awkun" (literally "no, thank you"). However, every day I'm on the beach I have the following conversation literally dozens of times. I see the woman walking towards me so I smile and shake my head no. This should be enough. But no.

You want massah?
Ottay awkun.
Massah very good.
Ottay awkun.
Cut nail?
Ottay.
Cut nail very nice?
Ottay.
Ooh, your nail so long.
No.
Why you no want cut nail?
I am trying to be nice here.
I do foot massah very good.
Why are we still having this conversation?
I come back later?
No?
Later I cut nail.
No.
I come back later you get massah.
No.
You help me. Today no business.

And so on. The reason "today no business" is always the same. There are more massah ladies than tourists! I always cut my nails before going to the beach in a vain attempt to avoid these conversations. Maybe next time I will take a pair of pliers and rip them out at the root. It wouldn't help.

You want me massah your raw, bleeding toe pads? Massah raw bleeding toe pads very nice.

I am single, heterosexual man of somewhat advanced age. Why on God's Green Earth would I pay someone to cut my nails?! As for massah... I don't like massah. Because my back problems are structural and not muscular, massah actually makes me feel worse. Plus, these women aren't masseuses. All they do is apply various ointments from the local convenience store. Having someone rub skin lotion and SAND into my skin in the blazing tropical heat sounds absolutely awful to me. I don't know why anyone would want that.

As a western man I have quite a bit of hair on my body except, of course, on the one place where I actually want it, on my head. The massah ladies also remove hair. That's fine if you're a lady.

Here they do it by twisting a piece of string into a sort of figure-eight and rubbing it over the skin. The string literally rips the hair out. It hurts like hell. They use talcum powder to lessen the discomfort but it doesn't help much. Here my friend Ato is having this done to her legs. Phea, the girl in the bottom left corner, is the one officially doing it. But whenever someone on the beach makes a score it inevitably draws a crowd. A group of young girls gathered to help and watch.


There are an equal number of kids watching from behind Ato. The little girl in the headband is Srey Oun, one of the three little girls who gave me the Christmas present. Behind her and Phea are two sisters who I believe are identical twins. Their names are Beyonce and Rihanna. Or so they say... I honestly don't know which is which. They both answer to both names. They both sell fruit. If you buy from one you have to buy from the other. Not a good business model.

One quick side note: I met Phea on my first trip here, about two years ago (!!). When I met her she was severely cross-eyed. Then she wasn't. Then she was. I asked the other girls and they said that she has "bad days" when she wakes up cross-eyed and "good days" when she does not. I would have thought they were joking but I have seen it for myself.

So how does this procedure feel? Look at Ato's face as Phea works on her armpit.


Why would anyone pay for this? Here is To looking slightly less pained but still praying for the ordeal to end.

4/06/2011

Fail!

If you are looking for a funny website to waste half a day look here. Hilarious. I submitted some photos to them. Here's the story:

At my school they installed a privacy partition in the men's room. There are two urinals so I guess someone was concerned about someone else watching them pee. This wouldn't be high on my list of changes to make at the school, but whatever. However, the maintenance guys were apparently a little unclear on the concept. Someone told them to put a partition on the wall next to the urinal and, dadgumit, they did it.


What makes it even funnier is that the bathroom is quite small and is off a hallway. A classroom is directly opposite. There is a door, but when the door is open this is what you see.


I took this photo from the hallway. The door in the back is the toilet. There's another one on the other side of the sink. The locks are broken on both doors, so if you're sitting there you have to be vigilant and make sure no one rips open the door while you're doing your business. Otherwise, people (students) in the hallway can see you.

So, to recap, one guy watching another guy pee is a problem. What is not a problem, apparently, is that little girls in the hallway have a straight line of sight into the both toilets and both urinals. Note that the partition does nothing to help this particular issue, either.