A little background: the Sri Lanka Railway was originally known as the Ceylon Government Railways when it opened in 1858, and was built to “transport coffee from the Hill Country to the coastal port of Colombo, then when the coffee crop was wiped out by disease, the embryonic crops of tea that Sri Lanka is now famed for were transported to the coast for exportation.”
There are three main rail lines in Sri Lanka, according to Lonely Planet, and they are used by both government and privately-run rail services (I believe there are like, 2 private companies).
We took the government-run red train from Nanu Oya (for Nuwara Eliya) to Ella, through some of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful hills and valleys. It’s a trip that, while it’s only 60 kilometers, will take you about 3-4 hours (plus an hour delay on arrival, in our case.)
There are no plush velvet banquettes. No artisanal craft cocktails. No happy hour specials or hipster DJ pushing play on an iPod.
But the bathroom at the airstrip in Kogatende is hands down the most happening. most popular spot in the entire Serengeti.
Now listen: I’m from Texas. Clearly I have no issue with peeing out in the bushes. Not at all. But I also understand that some people prefer even a modicum of plumbing and privacy. So it’s easy to see why this otherwise unassuming cinder block/tin roofed building was everyone’s favorite watering hole while we all were on our respective game drives.
And like the wild animals we observed navigating the ponds and watering holes across the Serengeti, there was a ritual to the gatherings.
Our particular gaggle of genus: homo touristus would swing by the Kogatende “watering hole” at least twice a day, and invariably, we’d see dozens of other safari jeeps and vehicles parked in rows on the hard-packed reddish dirt parking lot.
A safari vehicle pulls up. Now, watch carefully as the white female inhabitants dash quickly out of the car and hotfoot their way up to the building! Notice they carry with them a supplemental item: why its….its…toilet paper! And a wise decision as well, since there’s a 99% probability that neither of these two stalls will not be outfitted with that particular nicety.
Wait….our female is pausing….she’s shirked back and is wrinkling her nose now. Oh dear! Apparently, despite the best efforts of the erstwhile male bathroom attendant lurking about, our female homo touristus is a bit suspicious about this particular watering hole. It appears she is not a fan of the large dual septic tanks flanking the building and filling the air with one of the many aromas unique to the Serengeti. Whatever will she do?
Meanwhile, back at the safari vehicle, the male homo touristus are loitering about, seemingly unsure of whether they need to partake of this particular watering hole, or just wait to hang out near some trees. They decide to pull a beer from the cooler while they make up their minds. As with all male species, these male homo touristus know they have other options and are quite lucky in that regard.
Ok, so right now we’re also getting a not-so-rare glimpse into Kogatende watering hole life as the homo safarium guiduses slowly abandon their vehicles and charges to gather in clusters with others of their species. Notice how they are laughing and chattering away. There’s no rush here at this robust watering hole. There’s plenty of time for everyone to partake in both the amenities and the social bonding rituals available.
Now, back to our female homo touristus. After a bit of a dance, she has finally, tentatively made her way into the bathroom vestibule. She appears to be investigating her two stall options quite carefully….perhaps she’s comparing their flushability merits, or perhaps ascertaining the presence of a toilet seat. We can’t really be certain, but we can be sure that she will likely be disappointed on both counts.
Holding her nose and picking the lesser of two evils, she dives into a stall to heed the call of nature. Mere seconds later, our female bursts out of the stall, helps herself to several pumps of watermelon hand soap, and engages in an extended round of hand washing under the cold and weak tap. This is a rigorous grooming ritual, indeed!
Slapping her hands back and forth over her shorts, our triumphant female struts out of the Kogatende watering hole and makes her way back to the vehicle to share all the details of her latest bathroom escapade with the other, uninterested inhabitants of her vehicle.
Hi there! Things are chugging along at a very busy pace here at Poe Communications and Cat Box Management Engineers. New clients, new projects, new contracts…all very exciting stuff.
It’s been almost a year since I picked up my lemons and struck out on my own and the transition has been surprisingly smooth. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, the work to dry up or some other scary situation to arise, but so far…so good. My good fortune continues to freak me out on a daily basis.
To keep all the balls in the air, I’ve neglected my little blog here, which makes me very sad. BUT, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing. I have been and quite a bit, actually. Just not necessarily here.
One of the projects nearest and dearest to my heart has been the Project: Time Off blog. I get to work with my friend Katie and the rest of her fantastic team AND I get to write about travel, which is a dream come true.
We did enter “steals” territory when it came to spending time beach hopping. Still, hands down our favorite thing to do in Vieques. We even got in a bit of snorkeling, which was surprisingly good. And they’re opening up new parts of the island every year, so we got to explore a few new places this time.
And then, there’s our second favorite, budget-friendly activity: chasing down food trucks. We made sure to stop by Sol again for the the best empanadas and we discovered the most amazing mofongo at a new-to-us food truck that, unfortunately, despite our best efforts, we were only able to track down once while we were there. I didn’t even get a picture of it!
Another new-to-us, “steal”-type activity was bunker hunting. As a former, U.S. military stronghold, Vieques is littered with hundreds of bunkers that were used for all sorts of storage. These concrete warehouses are nestled in the hills and jungles of the island and are covered with grass on top, so they can’t be seen from the air. It can also make for some fun off-roading. A lot of them are locked up, but a few are open, probably to dissuade people from busting the locks on all of them. They’re full of trash from the 1980s and 1990s, things like busted up old computers and educational manuals. Very spooky stuff.
We also upped our “splurge” game by staying (and eating and drinking) a couple of night’s at Vieques’ newest hotel, El Blok. Review in summation: Gorgeous hotel, excellent service, great location, miniscule bathrooms and the hardest bed I’ve ever attempted to sleep on. We were definitely ready to move over to the W and their Dream Beds after a couple of nights. Also, the restaurant at El Blok is amazing and definitely worth a visit (you can read a full review from this blog here). We definitely felt that El Blok was a great restaurant that just happened to have a cool hotel attached to it, as opposed to a great hotel that has an above-par restaurant.
Go over to PTO’s Upside of Downtime blog to read more about things to see and do in Vieques. It was a great trip and just reconfirmed how much we really love the laid back vibe of the place. By the last day, we were sitting on one of our deserted beaches talking about buying property on this tiny little jewel of an island.
Heading over to the gym for some more pain, but I wanted to shout from the interweb rooftops about a new blog that I’m contributing to. It’s part of Project: Time Off, an initiative to encourage people to take time off from work, which seems like such a no-brainer to someone who not only took ALL of her vacation days when she worked a 9-to-5, but usually ran a deficit at the beginning of each year.
Anyway, the new PTO website and blog was launched today an includes a post from your’s truly on getting your Jurassic World fix without getting eaten. Go and check it out, sign up for updates, share your own vacation Instagrams or time off experiences. And take some time off!
Going from Singapore to Cambodia was a complete and mind-numbing culture shock. I mean, I had expected that going from the U.S. to Cambodia would be a bit of a shock but it turns out that going from super-shiny, everything-is-new, non-stop-development Singapore to the poverty and stagnation in Cambodia was way more overwhelming.
As we drove from the airport at Siem Reap to our hotel, we passed dry yellow fields with gray cows so skinny you could count their ribs. Through the dust kicked up by our SUV, I could see children in various states of undress playing in the dirt next to women sitting in dilapidated lawn chairs of all varieties—the women fanning themselves in oppressive humidity, just waiting for someone to stop at their makeshift roadside stalls.
Everybody is Cambodia is a roadside entrepreneur, selling everything from plastic soda bottles of smuggled gasoline (makeshift gas stations were everywhere) to those baggy pants with elephants on them to fresh sugar cane juice.
But none of them seemed to have any customers. Cambodia is, sadly, one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. Average annual income is $2.60 per day, with a third of the population living on less than $1 per day. According to the World Bank Poverty Assessment Report, Cambodia’s “near-poor”, those who live on less than $2.30 per day per person, may have escaped poverty but remain vulnerable to (even the slightest) economic shocks. The loss of just 1,200 riel (about $0.30) per day in income would throw an estimated three million Cambodians back into poverty.
It is safe to say that the country and its people have not recovered from the horrors of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime of the late 1970s. This failed four-year agrarian, Communist experiment led to the death of an estimated 2 million people, or a quarter of the total population through a combination of executions, disease and starvation. Because of the genocide, up to 63% of Cambodia’s population is under 30 years old.
The main victims of the executions were educated people – teachers, doctors, engineers, lawyers. After the Khmer Rouge was overthrown, Cambodia was left to rebuild the country with hardly any educated people left to provide leadership and an ill-equipped, corrupt government.
As a result, Cambodia still has very little infrastructure with just a few roads (only 12% of which are paved), and no train system to speak of (there is a limited train system which runs to the southern seaport of Kampong Saom and to the northwest Thai border.) Much of the population, especially in rural areas, does not have access to electricity.
The “public” school system is mainly funded—inadequately–by students’ families. As USAID puts it:
Today, Cambodia’s education indicators are among the lowest in Asia. While the primary school net enrollment rate is an impressive 96 percent, the rate for lower secondary is 34 percent and for upper secondary is only 21 percent. Due to high rates of poverty in the rural areas, poor quality of education, and insufficient number of classrooms and teachers, school dropout rates in Cambodia remain high at the primary school (8.7 percent) and lower secondary school (19.6 percent) levels. Cambodia’s education system continues to be affected by a weak public sector service delivery system, minimal teacher capacity, lack of school facilities, and inadequate enrollment levels.
An even bigger problem holding the country back is government corruption. While Hun Sen brought in a measure of political and economic stability when he became prime minister in 1985, he’s also ruled with an iron fist and has allowed bribes and corruption to run rampant in his government. (Plus, he recently referred to himself in the third person during a speech celebrating his 30 years of power, and well, that’s a personal pet peeve of mine).
There is a famous Cambodian proverb: “Don’t take the straight path or the winding path. Take the path your ancestors have taken.” Cambodians have a mixed bag when it comes to ancestors. But I hope that someday they can get back on the path of their Khmer roots and the golden age of their Angkor ancestors rather than staying captive to their most recent history.
Well, it’s sort of a ritual we have whenever we travel, really.
It goes like this: Run around like crazy people most of the day, soaking in all the history and culture and sights we can lay our eyes on, make comments on all the assorted smells and sounds, file them all away into our jumbled brains. Compare. Contrast. Compare. Contrast.
Then head back to the hotel in the late afternoon for a swim, a shower, some downtime. Get dressed and head down to the hotel bar for a drink and a round of dominoes before dinner.
For the most part, this routine in Siem Reap was the same as on any of our other travels. What made it different was the going to dinner part. Because then my very favorite part of the evening would occur: the tuk tuk ride.
Tuk tuks are everywhere in Cambodia, and we rode them in both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, but my favorites were the ones in Siem Reap, where frugal travellers and bohemian student types would take them back and forth to the temples and/or Pub Street. A tuk tuk is kind of like a rickshaw. It’s basically a scooter with a covered seat attached to the back like a two-wheeled trailer. The sides are open, and there’s a roof overhead to shield you from rain or sun.
Each evening we’d go to the front of our hotel and the doorman would call us a tuk tuk. The sun would be setting and the gardeners would be lighting the lanterns in the trees, as some garish yet faded tuk tuk would pull up. To go from our hotel — Le Meridien — to downtown Siem Reap was about a mile, and would cost us $2-$3.
We’d pull out of the circular drive, pulling along the dusty shoulder of the road until our driver could find a gap in the traffic and nose his way in, the put-put of dozens of other tuk tuks and the chattering of the riders blending together.
We’d slowly inch our way along Charles De Gaulle road, past dozens of barely lit, open-air food carts, surrounded by customers and families sitting on plastic chairs. The smoke from the cooking would mix with the dust from the road and create a haze.
There did not appear to be any road rules or very many traffic signals. Drivers would just inch forward, give way, inch forward, hold back. Surprisingly, there really wasn’t much honking of horns, although, when there was, it was that tiny little non-threatening scooter horn.
We’d drive past a large circular, non-working fountain that nonetheless drew crowds of people sitting on its ledge and socializing, or picnicking on the sliver of grass between the fountain and the road.
We’d make our way past what I think was a school, and next to that, a large building with an advertisement on the side advertising either an upcoming fight or a political race. I’m not really sure. Then the Angkor National Museum and the Royal Residence, where the air would finally clear of smoke and dust, and the smell of frangipani would hang in the humid air around you for a couple of blocks. This was my favorite part. I would breathe deep and try to fill my lungs with it, close my eyes and just hear the putter of the tiny scooter’s engine.
While waiting for passengers, the drivers would congregate and eye people walking by. We noticed that most of them wore pants, even though it was unbearably hot. We speculated it was to protect their legs from flying bugs, although a small bug hitting your leg at approximately three miles an hour seems very unlikely to cause permanent damage.
The drivers did, however, like to pull their shirts up over their bellies in a sort of half-shirt situation that reminded me of when I was a kid and my sister and I used to pull our t-shirt tails through our neck hole to make a sassy halter top.
Some nights we’d ride along the river, watching the traffic on the other side going the opposite direction, enjoying the brief breezes before turning down a small road or alley where there was no breeze and inevitably, a traffic jam.
On our way home from dinner, we’d often take the same or similar route, and the magic was still there. The controlled chaos of hundreds of little tuk tuks marching along like ants, ferrying tourists back and forth in the warm night air heavy with frangipani.
Actually, I’ve been back for about a week or so, but between jet lag, and digging out of email/work/laundry, I haven’t even had a minute to start going through my photos and trip notes and coming up with some blog fodder.
My travel-buddy/man-panion for life (XFE) and I actually learned a bit about Lee Kuan Yew at the very excellent National Museum of Singapore. We had gone to the museum primarily to escape the pervasive, bone-soaking, spirit-wilting heat and humidity that is Singapore in early March. The museum is in a blended building, half white colonial stucco, half modern cubist wonder surrounded by rolling green hills and landscaped trees. The important thing and main draw for us was the existence of the blasting, government-subsidized air conditioning.
Disappointingly, the majority of the museum and its exhibits were closed for renovations. But, they did have a condensed, Clif Notes version of the museum’s contents in the basement. It was a really great exhibit. The first part was a bit confusing, something about five kings and a boy who fought a giant swordfish and then was killed by the Sultan who feared him. Anyway, a big mix of legends and facts.
But things really picked up with some great exhibits on the different ethnic groups and immigrants that had come to Singapore when it was a colonial entrepot and trading post. The museum also had a great exhibit on Singapore’s occupation by Japan in World War II, and a brief exhibit on Singapore’s separation from Britain, the city-state’s internal struggle to become independent and self-governed, and it’s brief stint as part of the Federation of Malaysia.
A big player in Singapore was Lee, who was elected as the country’s first Prime Minister in 1959, and served in that capacity until 1990 (He remained a “senior minister” in the Cabinet until 2004, and “minister mentor” till 2011.) Quartz describes Lee’s ruling style best:
Lee led Singapore from a colonial backwater under British control to one of the world’s most thriving financial centers, and he did so with a tight grip on power. He has been criticized for instituting wide-reaching censorship, limiting civil rights, discriminating against gays and migrant workers, and generally maintaining a one-party autocracy for almost half a century.
That’s because Lee engineered one of the world’s most impressive growth stories—one that everyone from American Republicans to Chinese communists have both openly envied. (“Benevolent dictatorship has never looked so good” one columnist wrote of the Singapore in 2012.)
The tiny, resource-poor country’s GDP per capita skyrocketed under Lee to one of the highest in the world, behind just oil-rich Qatar and private banking center Luxembourg, according to the IMF.
We actually got a bit of a glimpse into the general public’s discontent with this one-party autocracy situation. We were in a cab one evening on our way to the Supertree Grove at Gardens by the Bay, a Las Vegas-worthy light and music show involving these tree-like structures that soar up to 160 feet.
Anyway, our cab driver asked us where we were from, and then launched into a grumbling monologue of discontent with his government’s structure. He told us that they’d had the same ruler/ruling party for six decades (Lee’s son is the current Prime Minister), and that wasn’t democracy, and how the people of Singapore have suffered under this dictatorship. He said the rich were getting richer while the poor were getting poorer.
I have to admit: I was shocked and more than a little annoyed. I was in the middle of reading a book about Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge — a book about a horrific history in which real humanitarian atrocities were perpetrated by a real political wackjob dictator. Meanwhile, everywhere I looked in Singapore was prosperous and new and shiny and so technologically advanced.
But that cab driver’s rant is not unfamiliar to me. Not at all. You hear it in the U.S. all the time, especially the phrase, “the rich are getting richer while the rest of us get poorer.” I’m sure if I’d dug a little deeper, he would have blamed immigrants, or corporations, or the educational system, or real estate prices, or whatever other boogeyman he was currently facing or competing against.
Perspective is a luxury, I guess. I understand that on a random Tuesday a cab driver in Singapore is not likely to think about how there are people in other parts of the world, say, Cambodia for example, who are just trying to recover from brutal histories and get to somewhere even remotely as economically advanced as Singapore. We all grumble and bemoan our own political systems, and don’t care or think about who our audience is or what perspectives they bring to the table. It’s practically a human trait to complain about other people doing better than we perceive ourselves to be doing.
I don’t know if Lee was a horrible leader. I don’t know if that cab driver in Singapore might have been richer if a new, completely different party was elected every four years. There are certainly some people in the U.S. who would say that no, a new party doesn’t necessarily mean prosperity, or even anything remotely like it. But it does seem to me, an outsider, that Singapore–a small island nation with no natural resources that was practically decimated in World War II–did alright at the end of the day. It’s a good legacy to have.
We took a nice little drive on Saturday here in Cambodia. We hired a driver to take us from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, a distance of approximately 145 miles. But I will forever know that trip as “Exciting Game of Five Hour Highway Chicken.”
I’ve never been so glad to be alive.
Speaking of live and chickens, here’s a list of things we saw during that drive:
A tuk tuk stacked with mattresses that said Washington USA” on them (I did not know that Washington was our mattress capital.)
A flat bed truck full of stone Buddhas.
Two scooters carrying live chickens (they were tied to the scooters handles and a clever chicken-carrying contraption on the back).
A Mazda car chopped into a makeshift truck hauling duck cages.
Children on bicycles being pulled by children on scooters (they hold on to each other’s shoulders).
A truck of sewing machines pulling another truck of sewing machines by rope.
Several vans with people sitting in the trunk area with their legs sticking out of the open doors. And one with people balanced on top.
Several vans with scooters tied to the back (we think that’s a sort of makeshift tow truck for broken down scooters?)
A van hauling some beautiful and very large carved teak beds. Basically, the frames were wider than the van and stuck out on both sides.
Carts being pulled by oxen. Yes, oxen.
A peddler cart with toys and housegoods. Sort of a portable Walmart.
The most number of people we saw on a single scooter: Four.
A van filled with clear garbage bags full of red chiles and green beans. (seriously full. To the roof full).
A guy in camouflage with an AK 47 strapped to his back. Riding a scooter, of course.
I have a ton more to write about Cambodia and Singapore when I get back.
There’s just something about a beach town in winter. It’s a curious blend of melancholy and hope. Melancholy because the whole town is a bit deflated. It’s purpose and reason for existence is still there (the beach, the ocean) but the spirit, the visitors, are nowhere to be seen. It feels hopeful because, well, obviously, the people will come back again and the town will come alive again.
(It now seems funny to me that word: presepe. So close to precipice, as in flying off of…)
We crawled along Positano’s sidewalk/street until we found a Tetris-style parking garage. Then we went off to be charmed by the little beach town.
During the summer, Positano is mobbed with thousands of visitors flocking in from nearby Capri or Sorrento or Ravello. But on a misty, chilly (by Italian standards. Really it was in the 50s) day in early December, it wasn’t busy at all. Sure, there were a few other tourists poking about, but not too many. I’m guess going to a seaside resort town in December does not top the list of a lot of must-do activities when one visits Southern Italy.
So you could really just meander through and soak it all in.
The architectural details were still lovely.
There were still flowering vines clinging to brightly colored walls.
Most businesses were closed for the winter, their wooden doors shut tight. But a few places were open to sell their world-famous, brightly painted ceramics and limoncello to stalwart tourists.
You could still walk under the canopy of arched branches, and imagine what it’s like when the sun dapples down through them.
The beach was fairly deserted, and all the little fishing and pleasure boats were piled up waiting for spring. We sat and watched a couple of dogs chasing each other up and down the beach in total freedom without having to dodge a bunch of people. Dogs don’t care if the sun is shining or not: a good beach is still a good beach.
Most of the beachside restaurants were closed and boarded up, their patios draped in heavy plastic. If you closed your eyes and let the sound of the waves carry you, you could imagine what it’s like here in the summer. The murmur of conversation and laughter, the tinkling of plates and silverware, the shouts of waiters. But then, you probably wouldn’t be able to hear the ocean if the place was crowded.
We slowly made our way to one of the few open restaurants for a nice, leisurely, wine-filled, seafood lunch. No need to hurry. There’s nowhere to go. No one’s waiting for us to vacate our table. There are no shops we need to get to before they close, no mobs of tour buses dumping yet more people onto this charming little seaside town.
The people will come back again. But for that day, Positano was all ours.
Businessweek Bloomberg had a story a few weeks back about the completely uncool devaluation of airline miles (We’re miles people. Well, XFE is a total airline miles machine, and flew roundtrip to Alaska two days this week just to rack up miles on a cheap ticket. I’m more of a “maybe I’ll use the Miles Shopping Mall for my Sephora purchase, if I remember” miles junkie). Anyway, tip number one for getting the most out of your miles: stop hoarding them.
Somehow this week, I got a whole bunch of wine-types following me on Twitter. Which is fine, but I suspect they will be sorely disappointed by my wine expertise. However, I find their tweets delightful and learned that Thomas Jefferson spent $186,000 (in today’s currency) on wine during his eight years as president.