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What Not to Say in Mexico

December 28, 2010

Over the past few weeks a certain Spanish professor who will not be named has taught me a lot of Spanish grammar and slang. He’s also been most helpful in suggesting words and phrases to be avoided in Mexico. It’s nice to know what you’re really saying, but also kind of horrifying to realize what you’ve already said out of ignorance.

No. / Spanish Phrase / Literal English Translation / What You’re Saying in Mexico

1 / coger mi chaqueta / pick up my jacket / coger = to make whoopie, chaqueta = to jerk off

2 / me gusta niños / I like children / I really like children (creepy)

3 / me gusta a mi professor / I like my professor / I have the hots for my professor

4 / voy a planchar / I’m going to do some ironing / I’m going to make love

5 / hijo, pronouncing the “h” which is normally silent / son / son of a bitch

6 / hotel, pronouncing the “h” which is normally silent / hotel / hotel by the hour

7 / estar rascandose / to be scratching oneself / scratching one’s balls (not doing anything)


The Bamboo Train

December 7, 2010

view from the bamboo train

We catch the bamboo train just outside Battambang.  I don’t know what to expect when we sit down on the split bamboo platform and the driver pulls the chord to start the engine.  We’re quickly going about 20km/hr and have big grins on our faces.  We pass through a narrow corridor of bushes swatting our shoulders, the wavy line of the tracks ahead, passing rice paddies and crossing streams on open bridges.  The other passengers are the driver and two little boys.

Butterflies as big as birds, dragonflies, and fat blimp-like bumblebees fly by and around us.  A bright mint green and black spotted grasshopper lands on my arm.  I’m sitting with my bum less than 12 inches from the tracks.  The joints are not well aligned.  I feel the bump-bump as the first then second axle hits each joint.  

The bamboo platform is on a wooden frame that sits on two axles with bearings that allow the wheels to wobble on the very wavy tracks.  The sound is like the wa-wa of a chopper.  I can feel the movement through my butt and ankles pressed to the bamboo matt, sitting crossed legged.  It feels like a mild case of pins and needles. 

There is one set of tracks, so when we meet another bamboo train we get off and our train is disassembled to let the other one pass.  This is simple and takes less than a minute – 2 people can lift off the engine, then the platform, and then the two axles and put them to the side. 

train disassembled to let another pass

According to my guidebook the bamboo train may not be around much longer because the line is going to be improved for trains of the non-bamboo variety.  That’s a real shame as it’s the most fun train ride I’ve ever been on.

boy waiting for the train to start

On the Road with Sam, Chort and Mr. Han Houn

December 3, 2010

girls on motorbike spotted from the tuk tuk

For a tuk tuk passenger the ride is breezy and not too fast so you really see the view. And a great view it is. Cambodia is so GREEN. Smiling people on bicycles and motorbikes, skinny cows with a neck waddle skin flap, fields of pink lily pads with edible stems, rice paddies, wooden houses with hardwood carvings, ruins and Buddhist temples painted sunflower yellow.

skinny cow with neck waddle skin flap

soda bottle gas station

There are some real gas stations with tanks and pumps, but more common are the roadside stands with fuel in soda bottles. Many people prefer the stands because they’re way cheaper – no government tax on the fuel.

two cyclists getting a hand from a motorbike

school children on parade viewed from the tuk tuk

While in Cambodia I was re-reading a favorite old book, On the Road by Jack Kerouac. He writes “all the golden land’s ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you’re alive to see.” After our first tuk tuk rides, Nasreen and I concurred that tuk tuk is THE WAY to travel in Cambodia. It’s not as fast as a taxi, but if you want to see everything, there’s no better way except maybe by foot or bicycle. Hiring a tuk tuk driver for several days in a row is also a great way to get to know a local and lead us to some surprising experiences.

Nasreen and I spent several days each with drivers Sam, Chort and Mr. Han Houn. I already wrote about Sam in my Angkor Wat post. Here are a few highlights from our days with the other two.

In Kompong Cham with Chort

Chort means gecko in Cambodian. Pretty funny as Chort may be the biggest Cambodian I’ve ever seen, at about 6 feel tall, and not the typical super thin body. He explains that his mother nicknamed him gecko when he was a baby because he was so small and didn’t eat much. He then does a gecko imitation, pursing his lips like a goldfish and letting out a chirp-like “geck-o”.

Chort in his Leo Beer hat with his tuk tuk

He wears a Leo free promotional baseball cap that he won. He likes the cap, wears it all 3 days that he drives us. It’s very new and crisp looking. Leo is a brand of beer in Cambodia, but it must be made by and for foreigners, because leo means underwear in Cambodian, much to Chort’s delight. “You know briefs? B.R.I.E.F.S?” – pointing to his butt. “You know bras?” – pointing to his chest. Everyone in the house is laughing with us – his wife, brother and teenaged niece. We’re at the house for an informal cooking lesson, learning how to make Cambodian style curry. One of the main components is a large quantity – 3 or so cups finely chopped and then laboriously ground with a mortar and pestle – of fresh lemon grass from the yard. Lemon grass is a quintessential flavor of Cambodian cooking, along with coconut milk, citrus, ginger, garlic and fish paste. Chort says that lemon grass is easy to grown in the mud. “You know Mud? M.U.D?” Yes, we know mud.

in Chort’s house enjoying the curry we’ve all helped to prepare: Nasreen, Chort and his wife

Chort’s niece, wife, himself and brother

Chorts’s wife and niece are wearing pajamas. They are not going to bed – this is normal day wear for many Cambodian women.

Chort’s Dad passed away when he was 13. He is the youngest of 8 siblings. Shortly before passing his Dad asked him if he would like to become a monk, since he didn’t know if there would be enough food for the family after he died. Chort said he didn’t want to be a monk because they only eat breakfast and lunch, no food after noon, and he didn’t want to be hungry.

He wants to have tourists stay in his house, like a home stay, but he can’t yet because he doesn’t have a bathroom. He needs to save about $500US to build a bathroom. His house has a split bamboo floor which allows for lots of air circulation and is a natural air conditioning. The bamboo is shiny and smooth from years of foot traffic. The house is spotless and sparsely furnished. It would make a great home stay. Chort has been learning English for about three years and his playful sense of humor comes out in a delightful way with his simplified way of talking. Some great one-liners from Chort:

• “oh my God” in a valley girl accent
• when we asked if he’ll give us a cooking lesson, he agrees but says “I am not skilled” of his cooking (with some help from his wife the food was delicious)
• when showing us his wedding picture album (photo styling reminiscent of glamour shots) he says to me “you show these pictures to your husband and he will see that I am very good looking. Yes, he will be jealous I say” (I must say, Chort does look good in pink silk)

In Battambang with Mr. Han Houn

We spend two days with Mr. Han Houn driving to the sites in the country side around Battambang. The most striking was a memorial with a story book of carvings depicting the Khmer Rouge reign of terror starting in 1975 when he was 18. He was so malnourished, no food except rice porridge with too much water, that he was too weak to do the forced labor of planting rice from the standing up bent over at the waist position. So he sat in the muck and planted the seeds. He must work or be killed. Both of his parents were killed. Later he spent 10 years in the Vietnam army. He has four children and tries to teach them about the Khmer Rouge time. The difference between Chort and Mr. Han Houn is striking. Chort is charming, funny and well fed. Mr. Han Houn is serious, with a very thin frame and skeletor-like face with very prominent cheek bones – he is of the older generation who survived the killings and mass starvation.

Mr. Han Houn telling us about the genocide under the Khmer Rouge at a memorial near Battambang

No tourist to Cambodia can, or should, avoid learning something about the genocide. We went to the excellent Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Pen. However, I found learning Mr. Han Houn’s personal account to be more conductive to a deeper understanding.

The Slow Descender

November 29, 2010

Note: all of the underwater photos in this post are by Anne Lesage

I learned to dive in the Semporna Archipelago.  The tiny island of Sipadan is considered to be one of the best dive sites in the world.  The island sits on top of near vertical walls of an extinct volcano rising hundreds of meters from the ocean floor covered in corals upon corals, surrounded by a diverse treasure trove of dive sites, some of which are drift dives where you get carried along, quite swiftly at times, by the current.  And crazily enough, I dove there after two days of an open water diving course at nearby Sibuan Island.  I had a few uncomfortable moments, but like the wimp I am I grabbed onto the dive masters hand, he helped me out, and it was all good.

Here follows a short rundown of learning to dive in the Semporna Archipelego, Malaysia.

Sibuan Island

my first dive (picture by Lena Amanda Koch)

Day 1: Sibuan Island, First In Water Day of Open Water Course

My very first dive I see a giant turtle and clown fish (aka Nemo).  My instructor, Jim from Barcelona, demonstrates diving skills which I then perform in the water.  I’m lucky enough to be his only student that day, so it’s very relaxed and comfortable.  Sibuan Island has a few shacks on stilts surrounded by the softest white sand and coral.  Between dives I buy a young coconut for 1 ringet (about 30 cents) from a boy who lives on the island.  He swims from shore to the boat with the floating coconut and a machete.  He hacks off the top with the machete so I can drink the coconut milk which isn’t very milky.  It’s cool clear liquid, sweet and sour – refreshing.  Once all the liquid is gone he splits it in half with the machete so I can scoop out the creamy young coconut meat.  Jim takes a nap and I hang out with the crew.  Then back in the water for my second dive.  The colorful corals are especially bright when the sun shines.  The water is bathtub clear.  I see a few sea gypsies – people with no nationality or identification who live on the water their whole lives.  It rains hard and I feel sorry for the sea gypsies. 


Jim napping

the crew

Day 2: Sibuan Island, Second (Final) In Water Day of Open Water Course

During my second day of diving class, on the first dive, I FORGET HOW TO BREATHE.  That sounds impossible, but I’m very talented.  When scuba diving you have to breathe in and out completely through your mouth to the regulator hose, never through your nose.  If you do breathe through your nose, air bubbles go out of the mask and let water in, filling the mask and making you blind until you empty it.  I couldn’t convince my nose to stop breathing.   Jim helped me to calm down, think about my breathing, and the second dive was calm and enjoyable.  I finished demonstrating all of the necessary skills, and became a certified Open Water Diver.

Day 3: Sipadan Island Fun Dives

SIPADAN!  First dive Barracuda Point, strong current.  I feel like I’ve been thrown into the deep end.  My open water class didn’t prepare me for the fast current which after we surfaced they informed me was called a “drift dive”.  I had a baby freak out and the divemaster held my hand for a while.  See tons of schools of……well lots!  I’m not good at identifying fish yet, I’m like a baby looking at shapes and colors.  I do remember sharks, turtles, eels, nude branches, and a striking variety of coral.  Second dive is the Hanging Garden.  Swimming under a rock overhang with corals coming out “hanging down”…… favorite dive yet – very relaxed, no current, no breathing issues, HAPPY.  Third dive the Turtles Tomb Cave; cyclones of fish schools; turtle skulls. 

Day 4 Rest Day on Mabul Island

Mabul Island

Day 5: Mabul Island Fun Dives

Three dives, all comfortable, I feel like a “real diver” now.   First dive Kapali House Reef; loads of wrecked ships and sunken house frames from houses on stilts.  The wrecks are home to giant groupers – really giant like my size.  The groupers have a football sized gaping oval mouth filled with tiny fish swimming in/out/around.  I am diving with a guide and two other divers who are more experienced than I – Anne from Paris and Ada from Barcelona.  Anne takes underwater pictures.  She actually dives for a living – she’s a police officer / diver in the Seine River where the visibility can be zero, and is very much enjoying the clear waters here.  We do two more wall dives around Mabul. 

bubble coral

cool fish

me with diver and underwater photographer extraordinaire Anne

By now I have come to think of myself as The Slow Descender.  Yes, I have no pride.  Either I have more ear pain than most people when descending to scuba dive, or they all have a way higher threshold for pain than I do.  Others have better described the child-like wonder of being underwater hovering among the fish and corals, so I’ll spare you, but I will say the effort and discomfort in learning to dive is very worth it.

Phase II

November 29, 2010

Hello my dear blog readers,

Sorry it’s been so long since I’ve updated the blog.  I was in Vancouver at the end of October, and I spent most of November in Washington DC with Ian, so nothing really “travel blog” related lately.  I’ll be hitting the road again for Phase II of my RTW on December 8th, heading down to Oaxaca Mexico.  Then in February Ian will join me for a few weeks in Colombia, where we plan to find the Ciudad Perdida (that’s lost city haha).  I return back to DC on April 12th.

I’ve been very productive over the past month…..catching up with Tyra by watching an America’s Next Top Model Marathon, making up for cheese deprivation after 3 months of cheeeseless Asia, and Finally sorting through ALL THOSE PICTURES.  I’ve posted several new albums to Flickr.

I’m also sorting through some half finished blog posts and hopefully I will be posting several over the next week.


Monk Spotting

October 19, 2010

I love monks. Not literally, that’s gross, but I like to hang out in places where I might get to see or talk to monks. Monks are happy. They’re often bashful and sweet. Sometimes the ones who speak English want to practice. In a place like Cambodia where a huge portion of the economy is based on tourism, it’s refreshing to have a conversation with a local that’s not part of a commercial transaction. Monks don’t make me feel like a walking wallet. Plus, you just gotta love a guy in a bright yellow toga.

I usually don’t take pictures of the monks I chat with because that might spoil the moment. But I have taken a few. Here are some favorites.

monks at Banan Wat, near Battambang Cambodia

Notice the monk at right with the cell phone. He was using it to take pictures. Monks on cell phones are common in Cambodia and Tibet. I wonder if they get a special rate?

monk hitting bell near Kratie Cambodia

This monk was beating a bell that looks like (is?) a pipe fitting. It was so loud that I jumped and covered my ears the first few times he hit it. The banging was in accompaniment to another monk chanting in a nearby temple, on top of a mountain in a forest in the late afternoon.

monkbrella, Phnom Penh

October is a rainy month in Cambodia. Many monks carry sunny yellow umbrellas that match their robes. I don’t buy many souvenirs, preferring to travel light, but I am considering buying a monkbrella. Yellow really isn’t my color, but I think it would brighten a rainy day at home, and remind me of my monks.

In unrelated news: I’ve been on the road nearly 6 months, the halfway point of my trip! I will be in Vancouver in a few days to visit family and friends. Then in November I’ll be back in Washington DC to visit Ian in what my friend March has termed a “conjugal visit”.

Angkor Wat is All That

October 11, 2010

I hadn’t planned to go to Cambodia.  Then I got an email from intrepid traveler Nasreen who I’d met in Jordan saying she was also in SE Asia.  I suggested we meet up, and she suggested Angkor Wat as being a “must see”.  So, here I am in Siem Riep.     

I’d just finished reading Paul Theroux’s excellent new book from a trip he did in 2008 called Ghost Train to the Eastern Star.  There’s a chapter with an atmospheric account of his visits to Siem Riep and Angkor Wat.  Regarding the ruins: “An assertive Asiatic Gothic, lends them tremendous power – power magnified by the way they have been eaten away by time, pitted by centuries of bad weather and neglect (reminded me of Petra in that way)……Even with tourists in silly hats scampering on its steep stairways and yelling to each other from cupola to cupola, the ruins epitomize sanctity, harmony, and radiance……….the gentleness of the people made it easy to linger (in Siem Riep).” 


temple complex from “Tomb Raider”

The temple complex used in “Tomb Raider” is a maze of unrestored temples covered in moss, parts falling down, trees forming part of the structure, uneven rocks underfoot, and dark rooms with shafts of light coming through ornately carved stone openings.

We spent 3 days exploring the ruins in our chariot tuk tuk, driven by a sweet giggly young man, codename Sam.  Apparently his real name is too difficult for foreigners.  I really love the tuk tuk.   I was thinking to myself as we drove around the countryside between temple sites:  What would Ian say if I shipped a tuk tuk back to the US?  I really want one.  I’d need to buy a motor bike to hook it up to.  I wonder if he’d drive me around, so I can continue my new favorite activity, being driven around the countryside like a queen – breezy, cushy padded seat, no windows so maximum view, not too fast very comfy pace.   Sam is a great driver, wonder if Ian would feel threatened if I imported him along with the tuk tuk?

Sam and Nasreen


me at Bayon

On our last day in Siem Riep I returned in the late afternoon to the temple of Bayon.  Sam asked me why I wanted to go back, and was it my favorite temple.  I said yes it was my favorite.  He said it was his favorite too, because of the smiling faces which are a combination of king and god (Buddha).  He was happy that I wanted to go back because that meant I really liked it and maybe I would return to Angkor Wat somedayon another visit. 



smiling faces of Bayon

me at Bayon