Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Second Chances and Time for Rumination

I wrote a post on IRV last year about Cambodia where I posted just three of the many photos I had taken in the few months I lived there.

At the time, I thought against sharing the others publicly because I thought they were unremarkable. But while looking through them recently, I had second thoughts, because hey, life is mostly unremarkable. That's why we take photos, isn't it? Out of some sense of wanting to preserve the inherently, inexplicably beautiful life force in each moment.

So here's to the photos that almost made it. And to second chances, which I've recently come around to embracing as the door God opens when you think the only available one has closed.

As always, click the photos to view in large (and to bypass any dull commentary that accompanies).

I. Getting there

The plane ride over from New York to Cambodia was all about the sunrises. It was perhaps the only flight I have ever taken where so many people were standing in the galley for so long despite the length of the flight (12 hours) or turbulence, despite constant seatbelt signs and warnings and the fact that we were essentially in a delicate mechanical bird up in the earth's atmosphere. Bless those old Chinese men and their commitment to the dao life.

When I got there, this is what was to become my everyday:

Farm on the right, farmers on the left. And...

II. Chickens, (un)glorious chickens!

And some more.

Duncan, the CEO of the organisation* I went to work with was one of the key people who made things happen across four countries and two continents. He visited frequently when I was there, and we had some wonderful dinner conversations about microfinance projects he has done around the globe and the things only experience can tell you about development life. (TLDR; it takes a toll!)

*NB: For the purpose of this post, the microfinance NGO I worked at will only be referred to as 'the organisation'. With a bit of research, you can probably figure out which one it is, but I assume most people are already in the know/not bothered enough to do that.

Did someone say chickens?

And finally, dead chickens farmers! The picture below has some of my lovely farm friends at the Saturday farmers' market. Yes, they carried the chickens from farm to table on their motorbikes like badasses. Yes, they 'maintained the cold chain' in 42 degree celsius heat using simple painted thermocol boxes. No, I never ate a farm chicken.

Why? See directly above. 

The organisation also worked with some Japanese donors to build a school in a remote community near the Thai border while I was there. Nearly 800 children of all ages in this village had just one wooden shack to share among themselves. We helped build them a few stronger and more weather-resilient classrooms.

Here is the Buddhist opening ceremony for the school. As the token foreigner, they asked me to say a few words. You may remember that I don't speak a whole lot of Khmer. Well, they didn't speak English either. Lots of smiling and bowing, my friends. Lots.

As I said, it was a remote village, and it had a classroom view to match. Good luck keeping the students' focus on maths in these surroundings, teachers!

Mr Sophal, our farm manager, is such a chilled out roots and trees man. It was an absolute pleasure to be around him as he ran the farm's day-to-day business, and sometimes he took me for great Cambodian coffee and on motorcycle rides through ancient temples (literally). Here he is explaining the benefits of rare wild herbs found onsite.

But you know, you can't always make everyone happy. Maybe it was my face?

III. Around town:

Siem Reap is essentially a tourist town built on the global fame of Angkor Wat and the good old image of the exotic east. Lots of spas and an absurd mix of hippie medicinal products and services crammed along the two main streets that made up downtown Siem Reap. I have no pictures of that, but here are some more pictures of the markets that the locals actually went to.

Local markets (psar) in Siem Reap are usually high-ceilinged sheds with everything from shoes, restaurants and fresh fish to fruits...

chillies and fresh-peeled garlic

and beauticians, all crammed into one large space. In the words my sister used for a city in India, they are an assault on the senses.

This lady, so fash. You couldn't imagine that just a few feet away from her glambox, a man was frying the catch of the day and scooping rice and veg out of large vats for hungry customers. Asia is full of these practical solutions.

On the more touristy side of things, smoothies for a dollar were a big thing downtown. My preferred fruit smoothie blender was one of the nicest, most generous and hygienic vendors I saw while I was there. She wore gloves, had stall decorations, and put in a ton of freshly cut fruit in the smoothie. Go see her if you're there!

IV. Home life

While in Siem Reap, I lived in an architectural palace in the middle of nowhere. I'll be honest; I didn't have a destination address on me when was getting to Cambodia (sorry, Dad) but it's at least partly because this house doesn't even really have an address. That aside, it was an amazing construction built by this Khmer architect who had studied in France and was the at-the-time Programme Manager's brother, so knew he could con the organisation out of a fair bit of rent for the time I spent there.

I can't complain though. The construction was an insanely well-thought combination of the elements: every single part of the house was built to receive light and air circulation, and the outside of the house had different water bodies running alongside all three levels to keep temperatures moderate during the extreme seasons, including a fish pond with the pedicure fish and other nibblers at the entrance! Plus, they had mango trees, domestic mosquitoes, nymph families...

In seriousness though, I had everything. Internet, hot water, a not completely sane landlady (his wife) -- a good house would be incomplete without one --, an open plan bathroom right within my bedroom, and meals with the family.

Oh, meals with the family. Between (i) barely piecing together sentences in Khmer, French, English, and Hindi, (ii) the landlady's constant paring down of her daughter's meals ("stop eating so much rice, you're getting fat!"), and (iii) the frequent power cuts that shut down all the water, (electric) cooking stoves and practical functioning of the house, we enjoyed a lot of great meals together, especially when said landlady's mother arrived and fired up the traditional coal stove outside.

This is how we made that fish you see on the table. Slow cooked in a banana leaf all old school.

Below: freshly marinated mushrooms about to undergo the same treatment, and fish soup. Fish, vegetables, water. That's it. No wonder Khmer people are tiny.

V. The Temples

One of the few times I went to visit the Angkor 'Wats' was during their annual lunar new year celebration. Lucky me! The temples were free for all locals during the festivities, so all I had to do was pretend to be Khmer for a few hours/ at the checkposts.

My solution? Motorcycle helmets.

Thank you, good humans for road safety deception tools.

My partners in crime were my neighbours: Terry and her siblings. Or maybe I was their partner in crime. Anyway, Terry had worked as a ticketing agent at Angkor Wat for a while and her sister did something similar, so they actually understood English and knew what I was saying without the exotic hand gestures and tribal dances I usually resorted to illustrating all my statements with. They were possibly the only people to fully be able to do so for the nearly three months I was there.

That's a long time for no one to understand what you're saying, my friends. A very long time.

Anyway, they were really sweet! Here Terry is below:

And here is a random lady. The reason she is covered from head to toe and umbrella-ed to boot in upwards of 40 degree celsius weather is because, well, tanning. Asian women in Asia, sigh.

These are some random tourists of 'can-you-take-a-photo of us?' variety mutual to my Cambodian friends.

Terry chips away at a sculpture.

Mary contributes. Look, art!**

** Also, the peace sign and Hello Kitty! Asia, we have arrived!

Angkor Wat fades into the background.

And butterfly princesses emerge.

All in all, we had a great time! History, music, games, food and drink, and I didn't even go to Khmer prison. That's a successful trip!

So well, you know, there's something to see in everything. Have a good week!

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Hong Kong

At some point in 2015, I took myself on a trip to Hong Kong. After months in semi-rural Cambodia and its absolute antithesis, Metro Manila, Hong Kong was such a beautiful, rich revelation, with an unwasted sort of buzzing energy buoying you from beneath its streets, and vestiges of its colonial past buried in towers of new beneath old beneath new.

I'm not sure I could ever capture it in photos, but I did try. (Click pictures to view in large)

Day 1: First Impressions

I spent my first evening in Hong Kong wandering around the less touristy part (I think!) of the tourist district. The ladies' market with its neatly lined stalls of high fashion clothes and more granny panties than I knew could exist, the goldfish market with rows of plastic bags ballooned up to each hold a single fish inside, the flowers market and the songbird market, both of which I missed on this trip, and the noisy, well-oiled choreography of food vendors coursing through it all.

That first day there, I was taken by the ease with which old blended with new. All the world's best cities manifest elements of this in their own way, I suppose, but walking through central Kowloon, I got the distinct feeling of being transported through the decades, peeling a layer away at a time. The amalgam of colonial history and Asian heritage aside, the one thing that stood out to me was that -- if you go beyond the shiny harbour front high-rise corridor -- Hong Kong doesn't make excuses for itself. It doesn't try to be shinier or more glossy or plastic. Buildings are old, streets are narrow, and most businesses are still as heartwarmingly simple (fixed prices, tarpaulin roofs, contents packable onto the back of a motorised bike) as they have been for years, with great success. Shops and houses have withstood time and selling out to land developers, markets are still held in rickety buildings according to the strict plan they were initially set up with -- seafood and meats on the ground floor, vegetables on the first, and a food court ('prepared foods centre') on the second. And everyone is just getting on with their day. 

Overpass, Ladies' Market, Mong Kok

Peckings, Sham Shui Po

Touristy Hong Kong, Sham Shui Po

Aviary, Kowloon Park

I also found Kowloon Park on my first day, a sanctuary in the tourist hub of the city, with public swimming pools, tennis and squash courts and an aviary, all in the same park!

My host and I spent the evening looking out over Victoria Harbour from Ozone, the highest bar in the world, over some great conversation. No pictures though, because how could one possibly capture that?

Day 2: Three quests, much soreness

Quest #1: Search for the Walled Village

Hong Kong's walled villages are remnants of a time when Hong Kong was overrun by pirates, who understandably enjoyed the shelter and element of surprise that Hong Kong's hilly, winding landscape provided (as well as its delicious cuisine, presumably). To protect themselves from possible attacks, Punti and Hakka villagers built walls around their villages, and equipped themselves with cannons and lookouts.

On my second Day in HK, I went (or rather, attempted) to visit one of these villages, Tsang Tai Uk. The pictures below are in order of escape from city centre confines.

No public transport, ladies and gentlemen. Not this far out of the way.

Tsang Tai Uk's other name is Shan Ha Wai, which translates to 'Walled Village at Mountain's Foot'. Makes sense?

When I reached, I found the village's central shrine was closed for construction, with shrubs and too many 'No Entry' signs in all its alleys even for me to ignore. For one of the city's best-maintained walled villages, it certainly wasn't going to oblige any visitors today.

Maybe because it was a hot, humid day, or because it is in fact abandoned, the entire village was also deserted. In a city known for how well it manages to pack people into small spaces, the emptiness of my entire excursion, including the trip over there, gave the whole thing a very time-travel feel.

Quest #2: Bride's Pool

While in Hong Kong, I also wanted to go hiking in the mountains. Having declared Quest #1 a partial fail, much research, many bus rides and a lot of walking brought me to Bride's Pool, where story has it that a bride fell in while being carried on a sedan during her wedding procession. Eerie, but beautiful.

The road (what I console myself by calling 'tarred hiking trail') to Bride's Pool went on for hours. No bus service, no taxis, no car pools, no bicycles. Just one foot in front of the other, mindlessly, for what seemed like foreverrr. Great hike.

I finally reached, though! Just before officially decreed closing time.

Bride's Pool

Waterfall, Bride's Pool

I lost a bag and a fair amount of peace of mind to this view, but gained a few friendly mozzie bites and bonded with a father and daughter over an orange on my way back. You win some...

Quest #3: No real quests.

Sometimes, nay, most times, it is the unplanned adventures that make the day.

On my way to Bride's Pool earlier in the day, I found myself at Tai Po's food court, eating delicious har gow (shrimp dumplings) with a hundred strangers at one of the best dumpling stalls in the city.

I also walked into the heart of old market in Tai Po, where this beautiful gem lay.

Man Mo Temple, Fu Shin Street, Tai Po

The Man Mo temple was built by the Tsat Yeuk community over a hundred years ago to mark the opening of Tai Wo Shi (Tai Wo Market Town), now Tai Po Market. The temple was built to worship the god of literature (Man) and the martial god (Mo). In the middle of a busy marketplace on a hot day, I spent a dozy few minutes just watching its coils of incense flake ash. (Though I could've spent hours.)

Little blessings.

Days 3 and 4:

I still hadn't hiked on the wild mountainous paths I had read about, and it was the weekend, so my host and I set out with two hundred other Hong Kongers on a walk through the mountains.

The climb was gentle, but it was the view that took my breath away. Fleets of clouds rolling in and out over the buildings, rows of papercut mountains in the background, planes landing on the water, and on the other side, so. much. green.

Later that evening, we rode up the much-hyped open-air, public escalators, walked around the fashionable parts of the city that I had successfully avoided till then (much more bearable with a friend), and I went for a swim in Kowloon Park's lovely public baths.

The next day, we went to the beach!

Sand sculpting practice, Stanley Beach

Day 5: Cha, marketing, and the best scrambled eggs in the world

A good cup of tea is a great way to start the day. I had my cup of milky Hong Kong tea (Cha!) on the top floor of a Tsim Sha Tsui food court, in the rare, quiet hour between the mahjongg ladies and the early lunchers. The camera and fabric markets were just about beginning to open, but the vegetable sellers were in full swing.

After much searching, and another failed quest, this time for Michelin-starred Tim Ho Wan's famous-but-affordable dim sum, I ended my last day in HK with another iconic Hong Kong meal; Australian Dairy Company's famous scrambled eggs on thick toast. Happiness.

As with all good travel, by the end of my trip, I felt completely rejuvenated.

On that note, I wish a very happy new year to you all. May much joy, love, learning and adventure find you this coming year. May you get enough rest, good food, and the very best of company to keep you healthy and in good spirits in the next few months. And if you haven't already, may you walk back in to work refreshed and rejuvenated in the next few days.

Oh, and go visit Hong Kong!