New Musings

Posted September 5, 2011 by passagesintime
Categories: Flip Flops

Tags: ,

Our travels over the years have taken us from the middle of a cornfield in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania to the turquoise waters of the Caribbean, then onto the magic carpet ride of Asia and now we find ourselves in a hundred-year-old apartment in the middle of Prague.

It was only natural for us to take our next journey online, with the launch of a brand-new style of flip flops called Musewear. We’ve been thinking on our feet for so long that we couldn’t resist creating footwear printed with fun and inspiring words and building in the chance to give 15% of our profits to charities that actually change lives. Musewear will also be maintaining a blog, where we’ll be spending most of our time these days. If you haven’t already done so, please visit us at www.musewearflipflops.com and let us know what you think!

As always, feel free to like our Facebook page or add the RSS feed of our blog to your feed reader.

It’s been awhile since we’ve heard from many of you, so please drop us a line sometime soon.

Diane and Michael

I Blog Prague by Diane

Posted January 23, 2011 by passagesintime
Categories: Prague

For some of our Prague photos, click here.

Shots from our recent trip to Lake Como are here.

“I Blog Prague.” That was to be the catchy name of Michael’s writings about our time here.  I’ve hijacked the title and finally I’m taking the time to put some thoughts on paper – make that on-screen.  If I had to say how long ago this journey started, without referring to a calendar, I’d venture to say I was a lot younger, in a land far, far away, and our plans were very very different.  Some of you know that our move here began with a phone call in mid-Feb 2010, just after a sunset scotch, neat, while we lounged on a houseboat in Kerala, India. Five months later we were all set to move to Budapest, 30 days beyond that we were in Prague for a look-see trip and a full eight months after the “what-are-you-going-to-do-next?” phone call, we landed in Frankfurt.  We were relieved to be reunited with the no-worse-for-wear Chutney, our beloved Standard Poodle, and started the six-hour car ride to our new new city, old old Prague.

Cool Air.  Bodacious beers.  Dogs and their lovers everywhere – on trams, trains, in restaurants – running loose, playing freely, scary to no one. Bread so varied and abundant it inspires poetry,  whole aisles of yogurt, cream and lactose loveliness, wines from the countryside that conquer their critics and a smothering of sausages –  cooked, smoked, curled, grilled, baked, aged, but mostly just speared and carried as street food. What did we feel so soon and so clearly?  Relief.  A Homecoming. Soothed and Enticed.  Europe, bless your historic, cultured, civilized soul.

Don’t let me fool you, getting here and staying here has been a crazy uphill pursuit of work permits, short term visas, no-crime-committed certificates, foreign police check-ins and paperwork galore.  It’s not over yet, and it comes with one agonizing promise – we get to do it annually.  Now imagine all that transpiring in a language that really does sound like people are talking backward.  It’s near impossible to mimic the Czech language, though I did learn that native English speakers get much better at it after a drink or two, when we’re inclined to relax our mouths and ease into the tsi and zhe sounds the Czechs lush onto one another all day.   A friend told me to find my inner child and exaggerate and dramatize the words, which is certainly more fun than being one of those hopeless Americans who simply say foreign words louder and louder, as if hearing equates with comprehension.  Even the basics are hard, as we found when we asked someone how to really pronounce the word for four.  His advice? It’s easier for foreigners to say “three plus one.” Czechs seem to fall into two categories:  they speak near-zero English, or they’re quite fluent.  We’d heard it was an age thing and that most young people speak English, but that’s not been our experience.

Strange as it seems after all these years on multiple continents, this is the longest time either of us has lived in a proper big city – Singapore was a big fabricated city – good in a zillion ways, but just not real in a dozen other ways. It hit me right away – cities are teeming with activity and all space is shared space.  Life is being lived pretty much on the move and Prague is a sensory playground for the newcomer. There’s so much classical music being played here that on my daily commute I see more people carrying musical instruments than I’ve seen anywhere, in my life.  And everyone is eating – usually chocolate or poppy seed croissants (my day to indulge in this breakfast is still ahead of me … the anticipation being part of the pleasure) or sausages in wardrobes of great variety.  As a lifetime mustard lover, I am thrilled to be back in a place where I can slather and dredge this condiment with abandon.  Contrarily, I’ve learned the hard way that “Americka style” is code-speak for mayonnaise, and sushi is one place wherein this detestable-to-me but loved-by-many foodstuff just doesn’t belong.  Prague is the land of potato soup and borscht, a veritable menagerie of roasted meats and doughy dumplings.  Gone are the tropical scented meals laced with lemongrass and coconut and chilies.  Czechs don’t like hot and spicy.  A chef of a new Indian restaurant here confessed to racial profiling:  he turns down the heat when Czechs are eating and cranks it back up for everyone else.  Thankfully, the Italians are here in large numbers and so is ALL of their good food.  Asia forced me to fantasize about good cheese, here it’s part of my everyday joy.  I just realized how much I’ve written here about food, and that’s because when you are new to a country, and your shelter is decided, food is often a thrice-daily adventure full of lots of wrong turns and delectable discoveries.  Michael noticed recently that this is the first country we’ve lived in where there are four languages written on most products, none English.  We guess a lot, we’re usually lucky and I’m glad we’re good at winging it.  You may not realize how it feels to stand in the meat section and try to decipher chicken from duck, cow from deer. Graphic icons are lifesavers.  Last week I guessed that a word with a “z” in it might be my best bet for finding sour cream – got it right.  But there was that pastry that I swore was a cheesy strudel and it turned out to be a too-salty-to-take-home-to-the-dog egg pie.  When in doubt, stick to fruits and nuts.  Still ahead, and full of mystery of varying importance, are doctor and dentist visits, train travel and more trips to government offices.

Of course, winter came and startled us into reality.  It snowed on Dec. 3rd and just about every other day that month. It’s snowing as I write.   It’s been seven years since either of us wore boots, scarves or gloves.  Come to think of it, I haven’t really worn socks in over six years, except for a few annual trips home.  I’m enjoying the simple fun of wearing layers and covering myself with a blanket while reading.    If you don’t have to scrape snow off your car or shovel, winter can be downright pretty. Warm clothes have improved a lot over the years – technology delivers  more than gadgets.  And much as I loved my pedicures and open-toed shoes in Asia, I adore having shoe choices.  Just for the record, I have a lot of shoes because I am someone who loves shoes, period.  This part of the world my friends is the land of sensible shoes.  Where we live in Prague it’s hilly and cobblestoned and winding and tricky and boots are your best friend.  It’s a casually-clothed city, people dress for moving around and walking distances and I couldn’t feel more at home.

Speaking of winter clothes, it’s worth mentioning that I have a much better appreciation for fur coats.  Don’t worry, I’d be happy if none of these were ever made, before, now or again.   I’m not going to get one (though there are marvelous ones in US thrift stores!) but I sure have felt pelt envy while walking around here in the throes of my first winter in years.  Women of a certain age and Russian women of all ages, are sporting amazing fur coats, designer editions that only hint at how gorgeous the beasts who wore them must have been.  Sure we all look good in our Dr. Zhivago faux fur hats, but these ladies look toasty, correction, they look hot in their outerwear.  Speaking of hot ladies, and now that I’ve got you thinking about underwear, this is the first place we’ve lived in a long time where my head turns on a regular basis to look at a beautiful woman.  The sheer variety of appearances – tall, blonde, brunette, fair-skinned, long legged, etc. — only adds to the sweetness of the babe-land candy shop that is the Czech Republic.   I’ve seen only a handful of men whose good looks might make it into a magazine, but clearly they are doing their part for the beauty of the gene pool.  Unrelated, I happened to mention to some Czech friends that I had noticed quite a bit of hugging and kissing going on in public, especially on the up-to-four-minute escalator rides up from the depths of the metro. (This was so socially verboten in Asia that I’d forgotten if it was normal anymore.)  He said that Americans often mention this with surprise, and Czechs can’t figure out why it’s even noticed.  In case you’ve heard that Czechs can be dour or serious I’d have to say that my first impression is quite the contrary.  They look busy, they’re always reading, much more rarely on the phone than what we’ve seen in other cities.  Plus, there’s an awful lot of socializing going on in this city and it starts everyday by 5:00pm.

Czechs drink.  A lot.  Like most European countries, beer and wine are part of everyday life.  I’ve heard that Czechs don’t really get too politically involved unless the government attempts to increase the price of beer.  It’s a national drink, a cultural icon, mother’s milk to most.  And it’s good and getting better all the time as more microbrewers open and it becomes an entrepreneurial industry.  I’m pretty sure being born without a tolerance for alcohol (mentioned so frequently in Asia) would be considered a physical handicap here.  Overindulging is a major social problem in the countryside, and city dwellers certainly contribute their share to the statistics.  I’ve seen young people absolutely hammered at 11am, unable to negotiate the purchase of a sandwich.  On more than a few occasions I’ve seen people in the park at 8am who have clearly been there all night, still drinking and not looking homeless or scary, and more than once I’ve seen a guy on the 8:30am metro slugging a beer. During the Christmas markets, which were their own kind of magical, I passed by ladies my mother’s age having mulled wine for breakfast.  We don’t see people drunk often and in many ways it’s just like any other city with people enjoying themselves responsibly and respectfully.  But as a social problem, it’s not at all funny and I’ve noticed my colleagues don’t laugh when the subject of excessive drinking comes up.  I’m guessing that a large share of families here are affected by alcoholism and that’s not a national badge anyone wants to wear.

There are days and sometimes weeks when we say “We love it here…let’s stay for a decade.”  We know that’s part of the newness we’re experiencing and how refreshing it is to live in Europe.  I really feel that I had to be this age to appreciate where I am now – any sooner and it just wouldn’t have felt so right.  I’ll be 50 this year and some of my natural energy is waning, so city life is just my speed.  Of course we miss family and friends, but we have high expectations that come spring some of you will be sprung across the Atlantic and come to visit.  People here rhapsodize about Prague in the springtime. They keep telling us if we like it now, we’re going to LOVE it soon. I think it’s because winter is grey and when the sun comes, it makes a star appearance!  After three years of hiding from the relentless Asian sun, we’re enjoying the clouds.  We’ve found an apartment in Vinohrady, adjacent to a marvelous park (this is what dog families do) and it’s just 15 minutes walk to the city center.  For the first time EVER, in 30+ yrs of working, I can walk to my job.  (Living in/at/over your job as we did in the B&B and the hotel is a whole different story.)   And if I choose not to walk, the transport system here is superb.  Ticketing is on the honor system, which is a terrific privilege and brings out the Catholic in me.  On the rare occasion the metro police are checking for tickets or passes, I get the excited feeling of “oh pick me so I can show I’m a good citizen.”  Pretty juvenile huh?  Guess it comes from years of wanting to avoid the cops at all costs. Prague is safe, easy and efficient – but have I forgotten to say how beautiful it is?

If you haven’t been, it really is one of Europe’s fairy tale cities. The castle keeps watch over the city and even though I see it every day, I still go giddy because…it’s a castle! (We have a craned-neck view of it from our flat.)  The city streets have a twisty magic to them and the architecture is nothing short of breathtaking. It’s the kind of city where the reward of looking up, at the wide variety of building styles, is even greater than what you see looking around.

Work has gotten off to its usual bumpy start, I should be used to this by now.  The challenge one accepts is rarely the challenge one actually gets, and I try to remind myself that thanks to superb parenting, I’ve always tried to do the most with what I have and stay grateful for the opportunities I’m enjoying.  Michael is off to a fast freelancing start with work that intrigues him and promises to pay for a more than a few jaunts to Croatia, Greece and the Nordic countries.  He’s also about to begin taking Czech lessons, not with my blessing, but if he sticks with it, I’ll be glad to share the benefits.  Chutney is a born-again dog, enamored of the snow, a lunatic in the park with her ball, friendly on a daily basis with Vizlas, mutts, Schnauzers, Great Danes, Shepherds, Labs, it’s like dog heaven on earth for her….and us.

I’ll wrap it up now by adding a little nugget I learned when I inquired about life during and after communism.  Our new Czech friends told us that after the fall of communism in 1989, it was amazing to have the privilege to travel freely, read and see all sorts of films and to enjoy the freedom of religious expression.  Of course I was most interested in what, if anything, was better during communism.  They volunteered freely that people were closer to one another, felt like equals, there was little or no competition, everyone had a “job,” be it meaningful or meaningless and so there was very little stress.  They certainly don’t want to return to that time, but they did want me to know that it wasn’t all bad, and in some ways, life was sweeter and easier.  I’ve always been a fan of the sweet and easy life, so I enjoyed this honest perspective.

I owe so many of you an answer about how we like things here, and how we’re settling in, etc., so thanks for keeping in touch and asking after us.  I thought this was the best way to reach out to everyone and give you the not-so-quick low-down on how good it all feels.  We happy, we’re healthy, we’re keeping open minds and hearts and we’re at the start of another adventure, the outcome of which, thankfully, is always unknown.  Keep in touch and I will try to Blog Prague again in a few months.

A Tale Of Two Countries by Diane

Posted April 18, 2010 by passagesintime
Categories: Cambodia, India, Kerala, Pursat, Sustainable Cambodia, Travel

Tags:

We’re sorry we haven’t blogged in ages.  We make no excuses, it wasn’t intentional, we just stopped writing about the great travels we were taking.  We haven’t stopped the traveling  – we’re moving around SE Asia and enjoying our time here even more than we imagined.  Through it all, Michael has captured great images and we’ve uploaded a small grouping of them now.  Two of our recent trips are really worth sharing so here’s a snippet of description to go with those photos.

February 2010 – Incredible, indelible, indescribeable, intoxicating India
Kerala is the shining jewel state of southern India.  We wanted a slow and easy way to take our first India vacation so we opted out of the Taj Mahal and the challenges of the North.  We chose well.  After two days in the dusty, trashy, noisy, chaotic streets of Cochin and the charms of the old Jew town quarter, we drove high into the hills to the tea plantations of Munnar.  The cool mountain air and stunning nature was cleansing, sweet relief.  This is the India you never knew existed.  The next time you are letting your tea steep, take a moment to imagine the steep slopes on which those leaves grow.  You cannot help but appreciate the effort and artistry that convene in this common cuppa, and to understand why so many cultures imbue it with reverence and ritual.  There’s magic in them there leaves.  Next our expert driver navigated the mountainous switchbacks to take us to the coastal backwaters of colourful Kerala.  The houseboat rental through this region was the highlight of our trip. Life is lived on these waters is sparse simplicity but according to an ancient traditional rhythm.

Every moment in India is one of contrasts; ordinary vegetables enlivened with perfumed seasonings, stifling heat refreshed by white bright smiles; and so many shades of brown, weather-worn people, wrapped in a dazzling rainbow of cottons and silk.  The whole journey felt like a feast for the senses and India’s “other-worldly” quality lingers long in our hearts and heads.

For the photos, click here.

March 2010 – Pursat and Phenom Penh, Cambodia

A year ago, for our 10th wedding anniversary, we sponsored two children from rural Cambodia.  For Easter this year, we decided to go and meet them and spend some time in their villages and see how we could help out.  We collected heaps of clothing, books and toys, caught a 6am flight to Phenom Penh and then took a 4-hour drive North to the small town of Pursat. A group of Americans started an organization called Sustainable Cambodia back in the 90’s, after visiting there and realizing they simply had to do something to make a difference. And what a difference they’ve made.

They focus on water sourcing through well digging, water catchment and purification and schooling.  We spent three amazing days visiting the poorest villages we have ever been to, distributing the clothing we brought, (which fell grossly shy of the need) and savoring the spirit of these warm, smiling, hopeful, even-when-hopelessly-poor people.  We put shoes on feet that had never worn shoes before, watched as women and teenagers blushed and giggled when handed new panties and received more than our share of blessings from people who were as grateful for our presence as they were for the supplies.  We bought each of our families a bicycle, that will be used by every member of the family over the course of a day.  We were VIP’s at a “diarrhea party,” which was a role-playing skit put on by the older students to teach the very young about cholera and the importance of using water filters.  It was a serious subject but as we’ve come to see in this country with a tragically serious past, it ended like most events–loads of laughter, hours of dancing and non-stop singing.

We spent Easter weekend in Phenom Penh, reveling in the Frenchness of it all– great coffee, bread and bistros.  It’s gentler than Hanoi and less seedy than Bangkok and it has a peaceful pace that envelops you.  There are lots of NGO’s (non-government organizations) operating retail and arts and crafts shops as well as restaurants, all in an effort to make amends for the atrocities that befell Cambodia.  And it’s working!  My favorite hours in the city were spent watching motorbikes, laden with lives and livelihoods, pass in front of our hotel window.  We went to help others and we received more than we gave.  A Happy Easter in deed.

For the photos, click here.

Our time in Asia is ending in a few months, we’re still weighing our options and frantically trying to decide if we can squeeze in Laos, or Nepal or Japan, or should we go back to Bali, Siem Reap or Phuket!  Good choices all.  We’ll keep you with us in our hearts and look forward to the chance to share some of our stories with you when we meet again.

Hanoise by Mike

Posted April 19, 2009 by passagesintime
Categories: Hanoi, Mai Chau, Viet Nam

To see photos of this trip, click here and then on the Viet Nam album …

We’ve just returned from (oh, excuse me) Hanoi in Northern (honk, honk) Viet Nam and my-oh-my what a (watch out!) crazy city it (beep, beep, beep) is. This video I shot will give you a good idea of what the calm chaos of the traffic flow is like. There are pedestrians, mopeds, bicycles, pedicabs, cars and trucks flowing everywhere through the narrow streets of the Old Quarter where we stayed – and somehow, with very few traffic lights, no stop signs and copious amounts of honking, it all works. The rule for crossing the street is to take a deep breath, step off the curb and walk calmly into the human transportation river – not stopping, not speeding up and definitely not looking anyone in the eye because we were told that if someone has an accident because they were distracted by your gaze, then you are at fault. (We were also told that whoever has the most money is the one who makes restitution in an accident, so we were extra-careful everywhere we went.)

An accident on the streets of Hanoi could mean tangling with a bicycle holding stacks of woven baskets; improbable pyramids of enormous jackfruit or watermelons; layers of nested cooking pots; or bouquets of flowers. Meet the wrong end of a moped and you could find yourself buried under cages of chickens, smothered by an avalanche of green leafy vegetables, or tickled to death by hundreds of feather dusters.

Then of course, there’s the human traffic. Women in pointed bamboo hats make deliveries of fish, flowers, fruit and more by balancing a long bamboo pole on their shoulder with a laden basket hanging off each end. The sidewalks aren’t for pedestrians, they are essentially front yards. There is some type of food being prepared nearly every fifth doorway including the cleaving of raw unrefrigerated meat and steaming cauldrons of soup, rice and buns over small fires. Breakfast, lunch and dinner takes place on plastic kid-sized tables where the locals sit on even smaller red plastic step stools.

The Old Quarter evolved as the heart of Hanoi’s commerce and the winding, narrow streets were originally named according to what was sold along them. We saw aluminium street, zipper street, shoe street, eyeglass street, button and bottle cap street, gravestone street, stuffed animal street and underwear alley. Pretty much anything you can imagine is sold in this town in super-small shops that look very much like they double as kitchens, living rooms and sleeping quarters for the inhabitants.

Having once been a French colony, there are pockets of civility. We had the best coffee we’ve experienced in Asia and two divine dinners where the chefs were fusing French and local cuisine with expert alchemy.

Because I had something of a love-hate relationship with the place (loved the frenetic “go” of the place, hated the endless and omnipresent honking) I was only a little sad to leave for our three-day sojourn out in the country.

We skipped the usual tourist routes of Halong Bay and Sapa in favour of taking a four-hour drive south to the Mai Chau Valley. A good and bad decision. The bad part was, as you might have guessed by now, the drive. Either the van didn’t have enough weight in it, or the shocks were shot. So we basically bounced our way through the countryside. For four hours. (It’s hard to believe it was a weight issue actually. We were constantly told we were fat during the five-day trip, even to the point of me being asked “when I was due” and some man pinching Diane’s arm and then winking at me as if to say, “you got some good stock there buddy” while we were walking through a country village. But it’s impossible to be offended by their candor as the country folk don’t see “our kind” very often.)

The first night at our hotel was spent over a small lotus pond in a truly charming bamboo hut. Then, we were moved indoors to the hotel’s only suite that was charming for entirely different reasons.

We spent our days walking and biking through various “Hill Tribe” communities. Behind the hotel, set amid glowing green rice fields that formed the floor of the valley, was a White Thai village. Another day we went to a Black Hmong market and oggled the amazing fabrics that the tribespeople wore and sold.

It was truly a reminder about how many different ways there are to live upon this earth. In the Black Hmong village, we got invited into the home of a “magician” (something like the town medicine man) and saw how a family of 7 was living in a dimly-lit, dismal common room. No privacy, no windows and no indoor plumbing so Diane only pretended to drink the tea that was poured out for us. In the White Thai village, we watched people tending the rice fields, fixing their buildings, taking their water buffalos for grazing, cooking, and weaving vibrant silk scarves on the looms they all keep beneath their raised-on-stilts homes. They were involved in the basics of living – something I sometimes feel too far away from in front of my plugged-in, air-conditioned home. The TV was, however, pretty much omnipresent – even in the home of the magician in the middle of nowhere. In fact, when we were there, he was watching some type of Hmong tug of war Olympics.

Our last day we visited a huge cave just across the street from the hotel. The hotel owners have paved the floor in concrete and set up lights along the walls so the space could be used for meetings, events and even yoga. But it was all cave –complete with crystalline drips of water and a fluttering ceiling of bats. Our guide told us that the enormous subterranean space housed Viet Cong and spare munitions during the war and had a lake on its 3rd story! While I did follow the ladder to the second floor, I wasn’t brave enough to squeeze myself through the hole the bats were using as a highway to see much more.

Viet Nam may have a troubled past, but the country is clearly busy moving beyond that, trumpeting their arrival in the 21st century with the ceaseless honks of Hanoi.

Diane adds a final note:

All over Hanoi there are shops selling a mind-boggling variety of silks. (I even managed to get a local Vietnamese outfit custom-made in about 14 hours.) In hindsight, silk is the perfect metaphor for the city because Hanoi is raw, unfinished, sultry, shiny, vibrant, flowing, overflowing, washable and most of all, must be handled with care! I can’t wait to go back and feel the allure of it all over again.

Contrast in Cambodia by Diane

Posted April 8, 2009 by passagesintime
Categories: Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Note:  With this blog entry, we’re switching to displaying our photos on Picasa.  You can view all of the Cambodia shots, plus pictures of our recent trips to Puerto Galera in the Philippines and Sibu Island in Malaysia by clicking here when you’re done reading.

Like all tourists bound for Angkor Wat, we were captivated by the ancient temples.  Our photos, reminiscent of all the photos you have ever seen of this destination, capture only a small bit of the evocative, sometimes eerie, always enticing 12th century ruins.  Two things really surprised us.  First, you can literally climb all over these crumbling temples.  There are no barriers, no silk ropes; instead there are arrows pointing “this way” with tourists from all over the world crawling through the warrens of doorways, windows and half-walls in pursuit of that one unique photo.  I’m not sure how long this “freedom” will last, and it exists in stark contrast to the serenity of the place.  Still we found ourselves quieted by our own awe as we examined the intricacy of the carvings, the weathered color on the walls, and — most astounding of all considering the march of years — the symmetrically aligned doorways that invite your eyes to see from one end of the temple to the other, a distance you find unfathomable, while light falls and fades a dozen times along the path.

The second surprise was that most of the temples (and there are thousands, btw) are in the middle of the woods! The famous photos we’ve all seen never include the surrounding pine forests and tall wispy trees.  It’s gorgeous and flat and many of the temples are connected by scenic bike paths and stone bridges and are flanked by multi-story, multi-faced ornate archways.  Wow. The forests provided much of the “cover” that preserved the temples and hid them during the years of war that ravaged Cambodia – a place with the unfortunate distinction of being the most bombed country on earth.

Cambodia can appear to be a sad, sad place.  Wars have stolen whole generations of families and the Khmer Rouge regime was responsible for unspeakable savagery.  We visited The Land Mine Museum outside Siem Reap, created through the efforts of one ex-soldier who planted land mines during wartime and has now dedicated his life to finding and defusing thousands of them, and helping survivors enjoy lives without limbs. Contrary to what you’d expect, it was an uplifting experience.

Everywhere you look it is either muddy or dusty and so very poor. What little water runs through the village is used for everything imaginable – and this is water that you and I would prefer not to wash our feet in.  Out of nowhere, there are suddenly bursts of color in the middle of monochromatic dirty, silty street life and you see baskets of chili, vibrant silks, decked-out tuk-tuks and ear-to-ear smiles on barely-clothed children. Cambodians could simply be broken people, but instead they are very busy people, busy rebuilding lives that have seen the worst that man can do to man.

It’s the first place in Asia that I noticed what I could describe as an absence of pride – very little attention paid to flourish or the indulgence of beauty – and in its place an abundance of humility.  It’s as though everything here is fragile and tentative and all can be lost again with the change of the winds.  It was also the first time in a long time that I didn’t feel sorry for the street dogs – I simply couldn’t muster enough empathy for animals when surrounded by so much collective human suffering.

A thought struck me on a ride through the countryside – the idea of geographical or psychological relativity – if you don’t know your life is hard, then it isn’t.  What looked grueling to us was far better than the alternative that Cambodians have known.  And that’s what gives the country its unique vibe – people are brimming with gratitude for the little they have.  I felt, time and again, we were witness to the beauty and endurance of the human spirit.

And thankfully, the world is helping out.  We saw many US and European-sponsored homes that were part of a clean water project.  We visited a small orphanage and brought rice, noodles, cookies and school supplies and the surprised and grateful faces of the children will live long in our memories. There are lots of projects and ways to help and peace has finally come to this simple country.

Some final thoughts…

We were amused that along the roadside, almost all of the containers used to sell gasoline were Johnnie Walker bottles! (Black, Red, Blue labels – maybe that’s why these Cambodians are so smiley!) Outside the city, in front of many houses you see enormous steaming cauldrons of boiling sugar cane that’s being reduced to a type of brown sugar candy that’s a national favorite.  Michael donated a pint of blood at the hospital and he was treated like a celebrity – they just couldn’t thank him enough.  The joy of Obama is still ringing loudly in Cambodia, a country of underdogs sees themselves in him.  We saw many ornate staircases – wide, wooden, carved and fancily painted staircases – really expensive looking steps that connected bare ground to a simple wood house on stilts; I could only imagine that it was symbolic of connecting heaven and earth.  And on a ride back from too much “templing” we saw two men on scooters, each with a full-size live pig tied upside-down on the back, clearly en route to its “final destination.”  I was struck quiet by the sight and I realized that it is hard to witness the last minutes of any life, even a life that would be feed so many.   And that’s what Cambodia was for us – a country of constant contrasts.

Click here for photos.

Piercing A Typical Singapore Night By Mike

Posted February 11, 2009 by passagesintime
Categories: Singapore, Temples

img_1327Click here to see larger versions of all images.

Singapore nights tend to be a little on the tame side.  Usually a nice meal, perhaps followed by a visit to a club, then home.  That’s why this Saturday, when some new friends of ours suggested we head to Little India to see preparations for the Thaipusam festival, I jumped at the chance — even though it was 3AM.

img_1290Thaipusam is in many ways, the Indian Thanksgiving.  Devotees to Murugan, the Tamil God of War, march along a set route carrying a burden of some sort.  For some people, this burden is a silver pot on their heads.  More strikingly, for others, it’s an elaborate metal pyramid-like structure attached to their bodies with dozens of long needles that pierce their flesh.  Through these burdens, the devotees either thank the God for his help throughout the year or implore his help for relieving a troubling issue in the year to come.  img_1361

Saturday night was the preparatory night and we were lucky enough to find the temple in Little India where the devotees were getting themselves ready for the festival that would take place the following morning.  We were graciously invited inside the temple after being given a bag to remove our shoes and were allowed to wander among the participants as they were being pierced.  Due to days of preparation that involve fasting and prayer, they hardly seemed to notice that the rods were being attached to their skin.  img_1339

img_1364Pounding rhythmic music played at all corners from duos consisting of a thavil drummer and nadaswaram (think snake-charmer flute, only this one is the world’s loudest non-brass acoustic instrument) player.  Intoxicating incense filled the air, creating a haze that was pierced by the amazingly colourful saris and makeshift shrines created by attendees.  In all it was a rare, intimate glimpse at a culture that felt completely other and completely non-Singaporean.  Sure beat a night dancing to an an anonymous DJ somewhere!

img_1348 img_1343 img_1347

Some devotees are also pierced with bells or fruit on hooks.

Some devotees are also pierced with bells or fruit on hooks.

Click here for larger versions of all images.

Adieu Kota Kinabalu by Mike

Posted February 3, 2009 by passagesintime
Categories: Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia

img_1254

A forgotten foundation.

For larger versions of all pictures, please click here.

So as any faithful reader of this blog knows, we like to travel a lot.  And, for the most part, our travels have been richly rewarding experiences.  But I guess the odds were that we would eventually pick a destination that would have been better left off our ever-expanding itinerary.

Enter Kota Kinabalu.

Located on the northeastern part of Malaysian Borneo, our idea in visiting this town was to take advantage of the Chinese New Year holiday and go somewhere close and affordable.  It was both of those things, but that’s about it.

Kota Kinabalu (KK) is really just a starting point for people to do more interesting things in Borneo, like hop a small flight to the other side of the island to see the Sepilok Orangutan Reserve. Being a little burned-out from our marathon trip to the States in November, we decided to not move around very much.  Of course, the Achilles tendon I damaged on New Year’s Eve from hopping around like an idiot also helped contribute to that decision.  So we stayed in KK which was kind of a drab, run-down little city with unbelievable traffic jams and a maddening lack of good restaurants.  We should have left.

In fact, the few times we did escape the city limits, we had a pretty good time.

A three-year old orangutan just hanging around.

A three-year old orangutan just hanging around.

Our first day, we headed to a small Orangutan Rehab centre at nearby Rasa Ria resort that works in conjunction with Sepilok.  After viewing a really good documentary about how the orang’s natural habitat is being destroyed through palm oil plantation expansion, we went into the jungle to spy on two young males who were lured out with sliced fruit.  It really reminded me of how much different creatures are suited for different environments (like me and tropical beach bars), as I watched them effortlessly climb, swing and navigate the canopy with astonishing grace and ease.

On day two, we hopped a boat to the nearby TAR Marine Park and visited Manukan Island — a welcome tropical respite from the city.  Despite what the tour websites and guides said though, a decent stretch of coral for snorkeling couldn’t be found.  I also had my flip-flops stolen from the beach.  At least my foot wasn’t already injured or anything …

A pirate surveys the scene off Manukan Island.  (Or is that a pirate's wife?)

A pirate surveys the scene off Manukan Island. (Or is that a pirate's wife?)

Our final day, we hired a driver for a two-hour journey to Mount Kinabalu.  Most tourists head to this part of Malaysia to climb the mountain, but the park itself is worth days of exploring.  It has ten species of carnivorous pitcher plants, 1,400 types of orchids, over 300 species of birds, and the world’s largest flower – the raffleasia, with horrendous-smelling blooms that can reach 3 feet in diameter.  Of course, we didn’t see any of that because it was exceedingly misty and we weren’t at the right part of the mountain, but it was still pretty magical to be in cool woods hiking past Jurassic-Park-like foliage.

Yup, it really grows like that.

Yup, it really grows like that.

While we left only footprints, I managed to take something more than memories with me.  After we were back at the hotel Diane said, “Wow, you have a lot of blood on your pants.”  I said, “No, that’s just mud, it was a reddish color.”  When we got backt to the room though and I took them off, she was absolutely right.  Not only were my pants bloodied, but the upper band of my sock was pretty soaked too.  Strange thing was, I didn’t feel any injury at all.

That was one mean little leech!

That was one mean little leech!

Remembering what one of the park rangers had told us, we hopped on the Internet, looked up “leech” and found out that not only do you not feel them bite because of an anisthetic they inject before they attach, but they also leave behind an anti-clotting agent which keeps the blood flowing long after they drop off.  Nice.

Time to nurse the wounds of the day.  We headed out and got strong fruity drinks at one of a few seaside bars.  That led to more drinks and finally a decent Thai meal on the dock where we watched Nora Jones serenade us from a large outdoor TV screen.  This was followed by a Madonna concert (on screen of course) then a trip to the Karaoke bar where I sang the Lion Sleeps Tonight with a drunken band of Chinese New Year revellers.  Somehow a fitting way to bid adieu to Kota Kinabalu — which we actually left two days early, a rarity indeed in the vacationing ventures of Mike and Diane!

Magic Market

These shots were all taken at a nighttime market which we could look down on from our hotel room.  The amazing thing was that the market sprung up at night with dozens of carnival-coloured tents, cook stoves, produce, fresh fish, and chiles, chiles, chiles … and by morning, it was all gone only to be reconstructed each night.

img_1200 img_1205 img_1210 img_12131 img_1211 img_1202

And now for something completely different and one of the weirdest things we’ve seen on a sign in Asia yet.  Your guess is as good as ours …

img_1231

And here’s a little video of a couple of hairy little guys:

If you’ve received this by email and care to comment, click the headline above, scroll down on the webpage to which you’ll be taken, and leave your thoughts.  Thanks!