31
Oct 2013
POSTED BY Sheena
POSTED IN

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 15 Comments

Last Stop Angkor Wat

“It is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all of the refinements which the human genius can conceive of.”

-Antonio de Madalena, 1586 – one of the first Westerners to visit Angkor Wat.

Today Angkor Wat is Southeast Asia’s number one tourist attraction. I was quite excited to see what all of the fuss was about, but I also wondered if it was truly as fascinating as everyone said it was. The Angkor Wat ruins would be our last destination before heading back to Thailand to begin the shipping process to India. I hoped we’d be leaving our Southeast Asia leg of the trip with a bang.

DAY ONE

We arrived midday in Siem Reap and quickly decided we weren’t quite ready to explore the ruins. Instead we took advantage of Siem Reap’s tourist infrastructure and the air conditioning at a Swensen’s ice cream chain while endless sheets of rain finally extinguished the intense heat of the day. I left Brad behind and transitioned to the town’s covered market. There was an authentic section of the market devoted to fruits and vegetables, meat, and household goods and then there was the tourist market: a puzzle of aisles devoted to replicas of Angkor Wat, Buddha statues, wooden elephants, silk scarves, and the all purpose plaid Cambodian cloth used by all of the local people.

A half an hour in the market was enough. If I even so much turned my head in the direction of a stand an explosion of frenzy would occur.

“Lady! Lady! What you want? You want scarf? Real silk! Oh so nice! What you want? How much you pay me? I give you good price! Good price for you! Lady! Lady! Laadddy!”

After purchasing an unlikely souvenir of black sticky rice and tomatoes we left Siem Reap and sought out a camping location for the night. Just before nightfall we were granted permission from a local tourist official to camp in the parking lot of a rarely visited ruin. As I began to cook Brad set up camp, snapping our front curtain in place and laying out our new hand woven bamboo mat. This was going to be one of those perfect nights: a grassy parking lot and a quiet street. Midway through dinner preparations the tourist official returned and peered in at us from outside.

“I am horribly sorry but I was misinformed and now you cannot stay at these ruins. They are not safe. Please, you must leave in 10 minutes.”

We pleaded with him, telling him that we’d accept the risk but he was firm. We had to go, and fast! We continued cooking and contemplating where we would go next. Seeking out a camping spot at night was our least favorite task. Twenty minutes later he returned and looked worried that we were still there. “Please, if you follow me I will show you a safe place.”

Our procrastination paid off. While Brad followed him down the winding road, I held our half-cooked meal over the stove. He stopped a few minutes later in front of a Buddhist temple.

Brad walked inside and came back out a few minutes later with the thumbs up. In an instant the entire community of orange-robed monks filled our sliding door. We talked with them for a long time and the conversation went all over the place.

A few of the younger boys in the group were dressed in normal clothes and the senior monk in the group mentioned that the temple also took in orphaned kids. We played a game of guessing ages and they unanimously agreed that their favorite actor was Jet Li. They told us a bit about daily life too. “Every day we wake up at 4 and we pray. Then we collect food from the village people and make our only meal for the day. We don’t eat after 11 but we can have soda or juice. After that we study again and in the evening we pray.”

We went to sleep to the beautiful melody of monks chanting.

DAY TWO

We woke up to the mesmerizing sound of monks chanting. After breakfast the senior monk greeted us and apologized for having chanted so late into the night, and expressed his sympathies for having chanted so early in the morning.

He was surprised when we told him we loved it–an experience so surreal we’ll question later in life whether it was dream or reality.

We dedicated the day to Angkor Thom, the last capital city of the Khmer Empire and the second most popular set of ruins in the area. It was built in the late twelfth century under King Jayavarman’s rule and remained the capital until the Khmer kingdom’s demise in 1609.

To enter the ancient capital we crossed through a massive city wall by way of an incredible 36 foot tall gate decorated with a face looking down at us. We could hardly believe that we were able to drive straight into the ruins, passing through the same gate that once provided thoroughfare for war horses, men returning home from battle, and the King. We followed a perfectly straight road to the center of the grounds where the capital’s iconic temple, the Bayon, was built.

A set of walls decorated in extraordinary bas-relief scenes of battles, Cambodian daily life and legends encircled the center of the temple. Beyond the walls, corridors led to steep stairs, windows framed rooms like picture frames, and endless seductive goddesses adorned every surface. We climbed up a steep flight of stairs to the temple’s second level and stared out to a spectacular view of the surrounding forest and ruins. Carved faces completely surrounded us–106 of them in total, each of the 54 towers bearing four faces. The towers represented the King’s 54 provinces, while the faces, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the king himself, symbolized the King’s watchful eyes over all his people.

Angkor Thom far surpassed our expectations and I was at a loss as to why I hadn’t heard of it before. All I could think was that Angkor Wat must have been something spectacular to have overshadowed these ruins.

DAY THREE

It was Angkor Wat day: icing on the cake to an already spectacular few days. As the world’s largest religious monument it’s known for its immaculately preserved state, its beauty and the story behind its existence.

While many temples are built to honor the ruling king of the time, Angkor Wat was built to honor the god Vishnu. Its purpose was to provide a funeral location for King Suryavarman and it was built facing West, representing death in Hindu cosmology. Furthermore the temple’s foundation was built to symbolize the mythic Mount Meru with its five inter-nested walls representing a chain of mountains and its moat representing the cosmic ocean.

Angor Wat also played a larger role alongside the other major temples in the Khmer Empire. Each was purposefully arranged in a specific location to mirror the stars of the constellation of Draco at the time of 10,500 BC. This arrangement was meant to create harmony between the heavens and the earth and the stars.

To enter into Angkor Wat we passed over an incredible 600 foot wide moat by stone bridge, sturdy but damaged with upturned stones littering the ground and its center peeled upward. The bridge continued well past the moat and chauffeured us through the first set of walls. The walls and the buildings and everything around us were made of sandstone carried from a quarry 25 miles away, all 5 million TONS of it. It’s a wonder how this was accomplished but with 600 elephants and 300,000 workers I suppose anything is possible.

Like Angkor Thom we passed through several galleries decorated in incredible bas-reliefs. The panels stretched for 2,400 feet and like ancient comic books told stories of epic events in a counter clockwise direction—another symbol of death. A quick observation identified where the bas reliefs had been touched countless times; an elephant’s head or the breast’s of a woman, polished black and shiny like marble.

Farther into the temple the epic bas-reliefs ended and the theme changed. On seemingly every wall and pillar, seductive asparas, or goddesses decorated the surfaces. There were also ancient Buddha statues, painted rooftops and pillars, script and unfinished work, but the goddesses were easily my favorite. The unfinished works also surprised me and I learned Angkor Wat was never entirely completed.

For lunch we set up picnic at nearby Angkor Thom. Monkeys joined us and then retreated back to the trees, and eventually we left too.

The last ruin we saw was Ta Prohm. It is the only temple in the Angkor ruins where the jungle trees had essentially been left as they were found. I felt like we had walked into a lost world like Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider (this was a filming location.) The place had incredible atmosphere and the tree’s parasitic root systems tangled their bodies around the many corridors and walls, blocking alleys and crippling the temple’s structure.

We left Ta Prohm feeling complete. We could have easily spent a week exploring the vast area and still had not seen all of the temples. The Angkor ruins WERE as spectacular as everyone said. They were easily the most splendid of religious buildings we had seen in all of Southeast Asia AND in the Americas. And to think, this was only what remained.

I must say, this is one of those places you just have to see sometime in your lifetime.

 

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28
Oct 2013
POSTED BY Brad
POSTED IN

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 13 Comments

One Dolla Chia

In Cambodia’s west-central jungles lie the ruins of an ancient Khmer kingdom, at the center of which sits the impressive site of Angkor Wat. There are innumerable ruins of palaces, temples, and royal buildings immediately surrounding Angkor Wat, but it was an outpost an hour off to the northeast that initially caught our attention. We had heard stories of ruins still covered by dense overgrowth; a look into what the ruins would have looked like before their uncovering by archaeologists; a place to be discovered by the rays of sunlight seeping through dense vines that hang from centuries old strangler fig trees.

As the road signs indicated Siem Reap 30 miles ahead, we turned Nacho onto a tiny side road that wound through rice paddies and villages toward the North. Soon the villages dissipated and the countryside became a patchwork of jungle and rice fields. And then we arrived at Beng Mealea.

It was late in the afternoon and a lone bus carrying some of the more adventurous tourists departed just as we arrived, and then we had the whole place to ourselves. We found a spot right next to the highly decorated stone promenade leading to the entrance of the complex, and declared a camp site for ourselves.

Given the limited time before sunset, we decided to wait until the morning to explore the ruins. Instead, we locked our doors and walked farther into the jungle on the muddy dirt road on which we’d arrived. The road wound its way into the jungle, past rice paddies and a few stick huts, before splitting. At the fork in the road we noticed a trail heading into the jungle. We had been warned that thousands of unexploded land mines still littered this jungle, but we figured that if we stayed on a worn footpath then we’d probably be safe. We entered the dark undergrowth.

The trail wound its way through the trees for a while, and soon we noticed some half-buried hand carved stone work protruding from the jungle floor. As we walked on through the dense foliage more and more stone carvings were noticeable under cover of vines and half buried in the mud. Suddenly the trail hooked to the left and we found ourselves on an unexcavated stone thoroughfare of some kind, lined on both sides by intricate carved statues of seven-headed snake creatures, ferns, and round columns.

We felt what it must have been like for the first discoverers of this site, to be walking in the jungle and to come upon fragments of an ancient civilization. Our minds flashed back to our accidental discovery near Tikal in Northern Guatemala.

We followed the thoroughfare farther and its condition continued to improve until through the trees we could see an enormous stone wall, partially toppled by the swollen root of a strangler fig. We’d accidentally found our way to an ancient road used to access the complex of Beng Mealea.

We carried on and in the evening’s fading light found ourselves alone in the crumbling ruins, walking through walls decorated by intricate carvings, enormous arches adorned with snakes and elephants and script, and stepping over enormous stone blocks dislodged by roots and toppled onto the jungle floor. After a brief survey of the complex we made our way around to the main entrance and found our way back to Nacho for the night.

In the morning we awoke early. We wanted to be inside of the complex when the first rays of sunlight permeated the jungle canopy and cast columns of light on the ruined walls. At 5:30 we walked down the stone promenade toward the ruins, wiping the sleep from our eyes. Soon we were joined in stride by a small disheveled girl and her disheveled friend.

“One dolla chia?”

She was so cute and tiny, and spoke in such a funny little chipmunk voice. She stared up at us and put her hand out, and then repeated herself.

“One dolla chia?”

“Hi there little lady. You sure are cute!”

“One dolla chia?”

Her tiny mouth formed into the shape of an upside down horseshoe and she made her voice crack as though she were about to cry.

“One-dolla…chia?” she repeated, dragging the last word out for drama and following it up with a sniffle. It became clear that someone—probably her parents—had taught her how to ask foreigners for money. She had taken “one dollar each,” and without a basis for the English language had transposed the sounds to “one dolla chia,” which sounds extremely cute when coming from the mouth of a tiny Cambodian chipmunk girl.

But when it comes to giving away free money to perfectly able-bodied beggars, regardless of body mass, age, gender, or voice pitch, I am heartless and cutthroat.

“One dolla chia? Are you crazy!?”

“(sniff)…One… (whimper)…dolla chia? (whimper, sniff)”

“If I gave you one dolla chia, and then gave one dolla chia to every kid who asked, I would very quickly run out of money. Don’t your parents feed you?”

“One dolla chia?”

“You go back to your parents and tell them that they should feel ashamed of themselves for sending you out here to beg. You should be in school.”

The girl continued to follow us around for ten or fifteen more minutes as we entered the ruins and crawled over the giant carved blocks that were strewn about. Finally she gave up and disappeared.

A few minutes later tiny children began appearing on top of the tall walls of the ruins. They walked about with ease, oblivious to the deadly drops to either side, and they jumped from stone to stone over deep crevasses and over vines. They wore no shoes, and were as agile as monkeys. They were the children of the nearby stick huts, and rather than go to school they roamed around the ancient ruins in packs.

Sheena and I walked along an elevated stone walkway midway up one of the enormous walls, and as we did the pack of children approached from the opposite direction. They marched toward us in single file, and as they reached us they flung themselves like lemmings, one by one, off of the wall to the hard ground below. One-Dolla-Chia was the last one in the pack, and before flinging herself off of the wall she glared deep into my eyes and gave me a colossal stink eye.

The ruins were spectacular, like something that time forgot. The complex was surrounded by a high and thick protective wall, and inside there was a vast collection of rooms, covered hallways, an underground corridor, and various walls covered in elaborate inscriptions. The open spaces were filled with giant trees, and many of the structures were topped by giant strangler figs, named for their creeping roots that seem to strangle the ruins below them, and whose roots grow through the walls and then swell up over time, causing entire walls and columns to topple.

By 9:00 in the morning we had explored the entire complex; we had been there for the first rays of light seeping through the canopy, and in the absence of other people we had seen the place much in the same condition as it was discovered.

On the walkway heading out of the complex toward Nacho, we passed by the first group of tourists for the day. And out of the woodwork came One Dolla Chia.

 

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03
Oct 2013
POSTED BY Brad
POSTED IN

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 21 Comments

The Killing Fields

WARNING: This blog post contains graphic content. We highly encourage you to read it for your own education, but be aware that you will probably find it disturbing.

There is a high school in downtown Phnom Penh, Cambodia, known as S21. The facility is no longer used as a school on account of the blackness that fell upon it in the 1970’s. We wound our way through streets and alleyways, and when we saw the rusted razor wire atop the school’s perimeter wall, we knew that we’d arrived.

In 1975, following the Vietnam War, a ravenous group of idealistic youths descended upon Cambodia’s capital, commanded by their leader, Pol Pot. They believed that Buddhist Cambodia should abandon its capitalism and embrace fundamental communism by whatever means necessary. They called their party the Khmer Rouge.

The unsuspecting capital quickly fell to the Khmer Rouge, and within days all of the capital’s inhabitants had been forcefully evacuated from the city and marched into the countryside to do communal labor. Soon the entire country had been overtaken, the borders were sealed, businesses were closed, and the population was forced into manual labor camps.

The first order of business for the Khmer Rouge was to carry out a process of brainwashing and the elimination of anyone with an education. Anyone who had been to college, who could speak a foreign language, who had worked as a professional, and those who wore glasses were silently removed from the work camps. Furthermore, anyone suspected of dissent was silently taken away. Nobody knew where the people were sent, but day after day families were broken up and nobody knew when the day would come that they would be carted off.

The S21 school had been turned into an interrogation facility. Whenever someone was suspected to harbor feelings of dissent against the party, they were brought here. The purpose for being taken to S21 was never explained to the subjects, and initially they went along without suspicion. When they entered the school, each person was photographed and documented. The photographs of each person who passed through S21 are displayed on boards and walls in several of the classrooms in chronological order. The earliest photographs depict happy people, smiling and wide eyed in the same way that we have come to know modern Cambodians.

After being photographed, people were chained together and made to lie face down for days on end in classrooms-turned-holding cells while they awaited interrogation for made-up crimes. Dozens more classrooms were segmented into prison cells by crude brick walls.

The real terror began as subjects were brought in for interrogation. Men, women, children, and the elderly were asked to confess to crimes that they didn’t commit. When they refused, the torture began. We walked from room to room in the school as scenes of medieval torture unfolded before us. Fingers and toes were lopped off with diagonal cutters, arms and legs were broken with clubs or farming implements, teeth were pulled out or smashed in, and they had a special table for waterboarding. Some were hung upside down from a large wooden structure in the school’s courtyard and lowered face-first into large water tanks repeatedly for hours on end.

If subjects admitted to the accusations, they were made to write confessions, and then they were executed on the spot or else sent to death camps in the countryside. If they refused to admit guilt, they were simply beaten and tortured until they died. As the population began to suspect the reality of what was happening at S21, the faces of the incoming subjects began to bear the horror of what was coming.

Within four years, 17,000 people would be interrogated at S21. Only 12 would survive.

Thirty five years after the horror ended, very little has changed at S21. As we walked from one classroom to another, we found metal bed frames to which prisoners were chained and beaten. Photographs on the walls showed bludgeoned bodies still chained to the beds, suspended over coagulated pools of blood. The tile floor in each classroom was permanently stained in blood.

After a harrowing and emotional morning at S21, we got into Nacho and drove toward the killing field on Phnom Penh’s outskirts. It was to the killing fields where the Khmer Rouge sent the educated, the dissenters, and the falsely accused to be done away with. 20,000 mass graves have since been discovered, but most are inaccessible, still surrounded by live land mines.

The killing field is a vast plot of land, which is now completely covered by mass graves. We walked into the area and were met by a scene of dozens of partially-excavated pits. Around the complex small shrines held bones, skulls, clothing, teeth, and other remembrances of the thousands who died there. When it rains, bones continually push up to the surface and can be seen everywhere—even in the middle of the walking paths. As we strolled through the peaceful landscape, we could feel the bones of the dead through the soles of our sandals as though they were pebbles on a trail.

There is a large tree near the center of the killing field that is decorated with small bracelets, and to the side of it there is an excavated pit grave. When the Khmer Rouge fell and this killing field was discovered, this tree was found covered in dried blood, hair, and scraps of skull bone and brain. Excavators began digging next to the tree and made a horrifying discovery. This was the tree that was used to kill babies and small children. The babies were held by their feet and swung into the tree to smash their heads, and then their lifeless bodies were tossed into the pit. It was one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen; a testament to the lows to which humans are capable of sinking.

Executions at the dozens of other pits around the area were carried out in a similarly disturbing fashion. Prisoners arrived in trucks blindfolded, and were led to the pits. They were lined up and one by one they were pushed to their knees at the edge of the pit. The executioners were ordinary Cambodians, forced to do this task lest they themselves be killed, and executions were carried out 24 hours per day without any stopping. Lacking guns or other weapons, they were forced to use more rudimentary implements. From the leaves of the surrounding palm trees they created cutting tools, and when the prisoner knelt by the pit the executioner would first saw the jagged edge of the palm stem across their throat so that they would be unable to scream. Next, they would  swing a farm tool such as a hoe, a hammer, or a shovel against the back of the person’s head, killing them. The dead body would then fall into the pit, and the next person took their place.

Prisoners brought to the killing fields were told that they were going to new work camps. Fearing that those waiting in the barracks would prematurely learn of their impending fate, the Khmer Rouge played communist party songs at ear-splitting volumes over loudspeakers throughout the fields at all hours of day and night, powered by loud diesel generators. They couldn’t hear their countrymen dying only a few meters from where they sat, crammed against their brothers, sisters, parents and neighbors.

In other cases, prisoners were made to dig large pits, and then were made to stand in them while they were buried alive. Khmer Rouge leadership decided that it only needed two million people to build its communist utopia, and to the others it broadcast over the radio: “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.”

After several hours meandering around the fields we made our way to the Buddhist stupa built in remembrance of those who died there. The stupa was built in a clear glass building, and contained over 5,000 of the skulls found at the site. We stared at the stacks of skulls, each bearing a hole from a hammer, a crack from a machete, or had its teeth smashed out. How could this happen—again?

Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge carried out genocide against its own people between the years of 1975 and 1978. In those four years, an estimated 2.5 million people were murdered—over 30% of the country’s population.

Finally, in 1979 help arrived from the North. Vietnamese troops entered Cambodia and defeated the Khmer Rouge, sending their leaders fleeing into the jungle. The Vietnamese assisted Cambodia in forming a new government, and the healing process finally began. But despite the reprehensible atrocities carried out by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, politics would intervene and deny Cambodians of dignity and closure.

America was fresh out of the Vietnam War, and having lost the war, still harbored ill will toward Vietnam. America and its allies thusly refused to recognize Cambodia’s new government because it had been implemented by the Vietnamese. Instead, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge was officially recognized as Cambodia’s ruling government, and the Khmer Rouge was subsequently offered a place in the UN. Substantial aid money was given by Western governments to the Khmer Rouge—the jungle-hiding murderers—to aid in rebuilding the country, for years to come. The money was used not to rebuild Cambodia, but to ensure the survival of the Khmer Rouge. America and the United Nations continued to recognize and support the Khmer Rouge up until 1993.

And what of Pol Pot, Cambodia’s Hitler? He eventually came out of hiding and went on to live comfortably in his own home until he died in 1998 of natural causes at the age of 73. He was never tried for any crimes.

The following day we pointed Nacho north toward Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. Phnom Penh had been an educational experience for us, and again we found  our history to be laced with ugly and embarrassing episodes that had escaped our school curriculum; in Cambodia we failed to act when aid was truly needed, unable to swallow our pride, and in doing so we had allowed an oppressive genocidal regime to maintain power for fifteen years too long. As we go forth into the world thinking that everything is peachy, and that our country is an unwavering model of decency, goodness, and humanitarianism, these experiences are necessary to fill the gaps in our global education and help us form a more complete picture of our role and our place in the world. What an education it’s been.

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29
Sep 2013
POSTED BY Brad
POSTED IN

Asia, Blog, Gear Reviews

DISCUSSION 7 Comments

Gear Review: Roasting Coffee on the Road

When we first started our blog nearly two years ago, we intended to do regular gear reviews. So far we’ve done a grand total of zero gear reviews, and have leaned more toward stories from the road. A few months ago, GSI Outdoors came to us and asked if they could help us out by outfitting us with a brand new car kitchen setup, as well as a new camp cookware setup. We’re excited to get to the Himalayas to give the camp cookware a good shakedown, but in the meantime we’ve been using the Nacho cooking setup a bit. So please allow us to step out of character for a moment for a gear review- something that we hope to do more of in the future.

Back before Sheena and I became destitute vagabonds, we were always in good supply of freshly roasted coffee. We ensured that our stream of tasty caffeine remained unbroken by sticking to a weekly regimen of home coffee roasting. Life was good, and the living was easy. But on a long road trip such this, being addicted to coffee can be a real problem.

Forget about freshly roasted, at times it’s been a battle to even find anything that resembles coffee. We initially set our standards low, and said we’d be content with anything in whole bean form, that we could grind ourselves. But by the time we hit Argentina coffee became next to impossible to procure at all, so we did the unthinkable: we switched to instant coffee. I can already hear the collective gasps, but it was necessary. And it was horrible.

So what did we do? The same thing any addict would do in a time of desperation: we started roasting our own coffee on the road. Whenever we found raw coffee beans we would buy a few kilos and keep the fresh roast coming until we ran out. We recently procured some fresh beans in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and for the sake of future overlanders in need of a fix (or those coffee loving souls at home who simply don’t have a coffee roaster), here’s how to keep the good times rolling…

CHOOSE A LOCATION. Setting is important. Do you think you can make a pleasantly quaffable wine in a Shanghai slum? Well you can’t! Same goes for coffee. For today’s roast we chose this sleepy seaside camp spot on Cambodia’s southern coast. Wherever you are, be sure that you have good ventilation because coffee roasting produces quite a lot of smoke. Open the windows and turn on the fans. If you’re doing this at home and you have a fire alarm, ask the nearest sucker to stand under the fire alarm with some newspapers and some stamina.

THE COFFEE. You’ll need to find some fresh, unroasted coffee beans. Back home I ordered mine through Sweet Maria’s, but on the road you’ll have to be inventive. We usually buy ours from coffee farmers, but for our latest roast we bought them from a coffee shop that roasts their own coffee. After some pleading and sad eyes, they relented and sold us five pounds. The typical cost of a pound of unroasted coffee is around $4-$5, or 50-70% less than what you’ll pay for quality roasted coffee back home. This, by the way, was an unstated aspect of our savings plan for this trip. The coffee shop in Chiang Mai sold us 5 pounds of hill tribe grown beans at $8 per pound. It’s high, but it’s still half the price of commercially roasted coffee.

THE HEAT SOURCE. Back at home I use a legitimate coffee roaster from Hottop. It’s easy, and requires minimal training to produce good coffee. In lieu of a real roaster, you’ll simply need a stovetop. There are other ways to do it, but this is the most widely available heat source on the road. We’ve roasted on stovetops in our little cabin in Colombia, in a climbing refuge in Hatun Machay, Peru, and inside of Nacho.

THE HARDWARE. You’ll need very little in the way of equipment: a high quality large pan for roasting, a stirring implement such as a spatula or spoon, and a large heat-resistant container for cooling the roasted beans.

Here’s a list of the equipment we use, which is all of very high quality and produces an excellent roast:

In this roast we used the Bugaboo 10″ Frying Pan from GSI, and it worked very well. However, in a subsequent roast I used the smaller of the two pots included in the Pinnacle Base Camper set, and it worked much better because I could stir more vigorously without worrying about spilling. Both have Teflon coatings, so the beans slide around easily to resist burning, and both are robust enough to avoid hot spots.

This time I used the GSI Pivot spatula to stir the beans, although in the future I will use something made of wood, as the beans get very hot and can deform the spatula if you’re not careful. We really like this spatula because it folds in half for easy storage.

Once the roast is finished, we transfer it to the larger of the two pots from the Pinnacle Base Camper set. It comes as a part of a bigger set of cooking pots and pans, and they all nest nicely in one another, taking up minimal storage space. The folding handles are a plus, as the pot itself can get quite hot when the beans are transferred.

And now…

The Nacho Guide to Roasting Coffee on the Road

Step 1: Measure out the green coffee. Don’t roast too little at a time or else it’ll be hard to keep a consistent temperature among the beans. Today I’m roasting about 600 grams. I typically see weight yields of 85-88%, meaning that if I start with 500 grams of green coffee, the roasted coffee will end up weighing around 430 grams (~ 1 pound).

Step 2: Turn on a medium-low flame. We don’t want to burn the hell out of the coffee, so cook it like a lady. The same advice can be given for fried eggs, but we’re not talking about fried eggs today. Slow and steady wins the race.

Step 3: Put the pan on the flame and immediately add the beans. Don’t preheat the pan – you’re not making a stir fry here. Add the beans to it while it’s still cold.

Step 4: Stir, stir well, and stir continuously. You heard me, never stop stirring. The goal here is to keep all of the beans at about the same temperature, so don’t let the beans on the bottom stay on the bottom for long. Scoop, stir, twist, scoop, stir, twist. Settle in, because you’ll be doing this continuously for the next 45 or 50 minutes. Yep. (NOTE: As mentioned before, I recommend using a pot instead of a pan for this, as it allows you to scoop and stir more vigorously to more closely approximate the action of a drum roaster.)

Step 5: Watch, listen, and stir. The overall roast will take about 45 or 50 minutes. After 15 minutes you’ll begin to smell something like sweet, wet hay. At 27 minutes I saw the first wafts of smoke and the beans started to undergo what is called “first crack”. This will sound like breaking pencils; it’s the sound of the beans parching. First crack, using this roasting method, will be spread out over about 20 or 25 minutes.

Step 6: Listen more, watch more, stir more. Once the beans become uniformly brownish the first crack will slowly wind down and there will be a period of silence, the duration of which will depend on many factors, most of which are extraneous and immeasurable, so just relax and get a feel for it. If you like a light roast, you’ll probably stop roasting just as you hear the first of what we call “second crack”. This is when the beans start audibly cracking again, but this time with the sound of breaking toothpicks. Once second crack gets rolling and steady, you’re probably about done. Just use your eyes to see when it looks good. Oh, and you should still be constantly stirring, because you will have never stopped doing so.

Step 7: Pour and wiggle. Once the coffee reaches its desired roast level, quickly pour the beans into the cooling pot and then proceed to swish them around until they’re sufficiently cool. Failure to do this step will result in burning, because late in the process the coffee can become exothermic and continue cooking themselves long after being removed from the pan. So swish them, toss them, and blow on them for a minute or two.

Here’s a pictorial account of today’s roast from start to finish. Note how the color change occurs slowly at first, but really picks up at the end.

 

 

WARNING: Don’t go too dark! If your beans look completely black, you’ll have to start over. Some inexplicably popular coffee brands like to roast dark because it burns away all of the actual coffee flavors, hiding the origin notes. The scientific name for that flavor is “ash.” If you haven’t yet been, you will soon be born again. Your coffee, depending on origin, should have notes like citrus, chocolate, loamy soil, tobacco, cinnamon, caramel, cherries, and nuts. The flavors that you taste will depend on roast level and coffee origin, but if you go all the way to “French Roast”, you will have turned all of those characteristics to coal.

And no, there’s no such thing as “espresso roast.” Espresso is best made with a quality medium roast coffee, not dark as usually found in America. Espresso brewing makes the coffee stronger because it’s brewed at pressure and with smaller grain size, so the flavors are exaggerated. Big companies, whose beans are typically not very good, market their ashy black beans as “espresso roast” so that you won’t be able to taste just how bad it actually is.

NOW DRINK IT. Well, not so fast. First you should bag it up in an air tight bag with a one-way valve and let it rest for a day (for regular coffee brewing) or two days (for espresso). This gives the beans time to off-gas, during which time the gases from the roasting process escape. You can visualize this by making a French press with freshly roasted coffee. When you add the grounds to the water you’ll notice a distinct volcano-like phenomenon as the trapped gases all escape at the same time. Also, your coffee won’t smell like coffee until several hours after roasting, and if you drink it too soon after roasting it’ll taste unpleasantly sour and bitter. So hold your horses.

OKAY, NOW DRINK IT. Grind your beans as you need them, not all at once. Because of the higher surface area of ground coffee and the resulting attack on it by Oxygen molecules, ground coffee will go stale in about 20 minutes. Use a quality burr grinder (we use this one from Black & Decker in Nacho). Don’t use a whirly blade grinder, as they produce too much variability in grain size. The big grains will brew slowly, while the small dust particles will brew quickly, making the coffee somewhat sour. But if all you have is a whirly blade, knock yourself out.

Now choose your favorite method of brewing and go to town! Here’s our magical GSI espresso maker at work. Enjoy!

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21
Sep 2013
POSTED BY Brad
POSTED IN

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION No Comments

The Cambodiwood Encounter

One day, in a Dairy Queen near Sheena’s parents’ house, a strange thing happened and we found ourselves sitting in the booth adjacent to the booth occupied by Alice Cooper. Several years later, in a place very much unlike a Dairy Queen, we once again found ourselves in the company of creative greatness. This time it was in Cambodia, in the tiny seaside village of Kep. But first, Alice Cooper.

“Oh…my…God, lookovertherequick—it’s Alice Cooper!” I was screaming and whispering at the same time. I had long since passed through the gates of puberty, but was still taking a risk; if my voice had cracked at any point while scream-whispering then I would have inadvertently screamed the information mere feet from the celebrity himself, rendering my sighting not only non-secretive, but outright embarrassing.

“Oh wow,” my mom whispered back. “I can’t believe it…now, which one is she?” I flopped my head around wildly as if it were attached to a neck of rubber and then stared deeply into her eyes so as not to be misunderstood. I spoke loudly enough so that Sheena could also hear, just in case she too lacked this basic knowledge, but not so loudly as to allow Mr. Cooper to overhear. “Alice Cooper is Freddy Mercury’s long lost scary cousin.”

“Freddy who?” It was no use. She took it on good faith that Alice Cooper was a big deal, and without warning stood up and started walking over to his table. What!? No! You can’t just show up uninvited! It was too late.

“Hello,” she said, bending down right in the man’s face. “Are you Alice Cooper?”

“Yes I am,” he said, Oreo Blizzard in hand. His wife and kids stared at my mom. This had probably never happened before. At least not since Wayne’s World.

“I just wanted to tell you that you have a very beautiful family.” And with that he went back to eating his Blizzard.

Having spent the last several months socked in by mountains and jungle, we’d had enough and decided it was time for the sea. We drove southward until we could drive no more, whereupon the road curved from south to east, and to our right the angry sea lashed the shore with dark, frothy wavelets. The road became narrow and winding, and to our left a mountain grew up out of the jungle creating a bulbous jungle-covered peninsula. On the far end of the peninsula we arrived in the small town of Kep. Signs advertised fresh crab and the water’s edge was lined with thatched cabanas. This would do. Oh yes, this would do.

Just outside of  town, beyond the last row of cabanas, we came upon a grassy area shaded by the outstretched branches of a very old tree. We situated Nacho twenty feet from the sea wall so that our sliding door opened to the ocean. The sound of lapping waves made the rest of the world inaudible and the faint hint of ocean spray did nothing to help the small rust spots starting to form in Nacho’s window frames. Awning, lawn chairs, table, drinks. From our very own roving beachfront resort we sipped our beverages and let the tension from the road seep out the soles of our feet as the sun plunged into the horizon and set the sky ablaze.

In the morning as we lay in bed listening to the waves lapping the shore we heard someone get into a car, which had been parked at some uncivilized hour next to us.

Reer reer reer…reer reer reer…reer reer reer…

“Engine’s not getting any gas,” I said to Sheena, still half asleep. The driver tried for several minutes, but the engine never fired. “He’ll drain his battery.”

Reer…reer…click-click-click.

I looked out of my screen window and saw the driver walking away from the car toward the road.

We got up and made breakfast, and in doing so realized that we were almost out of coffee. When breakfast was over we opened all of Nacho’s doors and windows, and started roasting a batch of coffee. It occurred to me that doing a write up on how we roast coffee on the road might be interesting to some, so I got out the camera and a notebook. Just as the beans were getting into a nice rolling first crack, the driver and his compañero returned to the car to try to get it going. Above the sound of cracking coffee beans I could hear the failure.

Reer…reer…reer…click-click-click.

Soon the two came around to find us; Sheena greeted them and then they started talking to me.

“Not now amigos,” I said, juggling a camera and a stirring spoon while trying to keep the beans from burning while writing down cook times. “Give me ten minutes!”

When I emerged from the van, the two men were sitting in their dead car waiting for me.

“It is dead” one of them said, pointing to the battery under his open hood. I gave the engine a quick once over and then told them what I’d deduced while lying in bed that morning.

“Your engine isn’t getting any gas.” They stared at me, confused, and then sprang into action and removed the battery. Once the battery was free they brought it over to Nacho and asked if I could charge it. I figured, what the hell, and charged it for a couple of minutes and gave it back. Within a few cranks it was dead again.

“You guys are out of gas.” Finally one of them left to go get some gas.

While the younger of the two was out getting gas, we got to talking with the other. His name was Prom, and he split his time between Phnom Penh and Kep. He had a wife and a kid, preferred the city to the country, and wait, what?!

“I’m a movie star here in Cambodia.”

“You’re a what, now?”

“I’m a movie star. Have you seen the movie My Family, My Heart?”

“Uh, no. But it sure sounds good.”

He went on to describe what the film was about, and informed us that he played the leading role, a bad boy obsessed with money.

“So do people in Cambodia recognize you on the street?”

“Yes, especially in Phnom Penh. That’s why I never go out unless I’m wearing a pollution mask and sunglasses.”

“Can I touch you?”

“Yes.”

The following day, Prom swung by our campsite with his wife, a thin and shy young woman with a great big smile, and their two sons. We hopped in their car and headed for the interior of the peninsula where a friend of his operated a butterfly farm on the land owned by an elderly and wealthy out of town German fellow. We frolicked with butterflies for a while before climbing to the top floor of the tall three story house, designed and constructed out of natural materials by Prom’s friend, putting us above the jungle canopy. From behind the house two ridges fanned out on either side of the property creating a shallow canyon that emptied into the sea. From our vantage point the ridges perfectly framed a view down the valley to the ocean, perhaps a mile away. We welcomed in the evening from our deck chairs, watching the ocean turn from green to dark blue to black, and then it was time to go home. Probably a typical evening for a Cambodian movie star, we figured.

On the way back we rolled along the base of the mountain for a while before stopping beside a roadside shack where an old woman served bowls of rice noodles from a giant cauldron.

“So, is this okay?” Prom seemed worried that we wouldn’t like it. “I don’t know if you’re worried about…eating clean food.”

“Prom, there is nothing that you could do to this food that would make us not want to eat it.”

“Okay, it’s just that some tourists are worried about getting sick.”

The following evening we decided to have a picnic dinner at our beach side camp site. We spent the afternoon preparing food and setting up a nice picnic area next to the sea wall, and then I decided to go explore the interesting boat launch just a short distance from our camp. It was made up of two elevated concrete ramps that extended out into the sea before slanting downward and into the water.

I coolly strolled out onto the narrow concrete plank above the water. I pulled my sunglasses down and slid my hands into my pockets and daydreamed about starring as the bad boy in my very own Cambodian romance flick. As I reached the high tide mark the slanted ramp became covered in razor sharp barnacles. La-de-da—I walked on. A moment later, nearer the low tide mark, I placed my sandaled foot on a green slimy mess of bio-growth, and my foot immediately squirted out from under me like a bar of wet soap. I did the splits, a thing that feels terrible to a grown man having inelastic groin tendons, and began sliding on my side toward the angry green ocean, only a couple of feet away. Just before reaching the water, however, the friction between the razor-sharp barnacles and my doughy white skin was enough to stop my downward trajectory, sparing me from a painful and watery dip. I whimpered, frowning, afraid and dripping blood from my hand and ankle, as I inched my way back up the dangerous barnacled plank to safety.

The picnic dinner went off much more pleasantly than my evening explorations. We ate Burmese pumpkin curry, fresh vegetables, cucumber salad and fresh fish as the cool air poured over the sea wall and the faint salty mist made the air feel charged. We chatted about life in America, and then switched to the far more interesting topic of life in Cambodia. Prom recounted his experiences in film and in business. Like many others we’ve met in developing countries, he longed to visit America, but found it impossible to come up with the money given the low value of Cambodia’s currency.

In the days that followed we relaxed at our camp by day, while by night we hung out with Prom and his wife, exploring the best seaside restaurants, dessert spots, and scooting around the small town in his little white Toyota. On our final night we sat around a table at a seaside restaurant sipping drinks. By now his shy wife had really opened up, and we felt as though we were hanging out with old friends. For the first two days we didn’t think that she could speak English, but now Prom’s wife was easily conversing, laughing, and playfully harassing Prom. When they dropped us off for the final time we were sad to say goodbye.

In the morning we awoke early and began breaking camp. The village was quiet and the coastal road carless except for one car parked on the roadside far off in the distance. We ground some fresh coffee and pulled a couple of shots in our GSI espresso maker, and then sat on the sea wall to drink it. Finally, as the morning wore into day, we fired up Nacho and rolled out. As we made our way down the coastal road, we could see that the parked car from earlier that morning looked familiar. As we drew closer we could see that it was a small white Toyota. I rolled up next to it and lowered my window.

“Prom, I didn’t expect to see you so soon.”

“I know, I’ve been here all morning.” He looked really happy to see us. “I was headed to the gas station and I ran out of gas. Now my battery is dead.”

After a friendly haranguing and a quick lesson about internal combustion engines, we put some of our spare gas into his tank. Now it was finally time to say goodbye. But what can a common man such as myself say to a cultural icon such as this that he hasn’t heard a million times already?

“Take care of yourself, Prom.”

And then I remembered my old friend Alice Cooper, and followed up for good measure.

“You have a  very beautiful family.”

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14
Sep 2013
POSTED BY Sheena
POSTED IN

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 8 Comments

Cambodian Dolphin Hunt

Brad had finally reached defeat. His stomach gurgled and groaned and kept him horizontal for 24 hours straight. He lay in bed exhausted by nausea and uninterested in exploring the world around him. He wasn’t the only one.

Four of the seven people in our group (myself included) came down with a nighttime bout of stomach related issues, yet Brad’s seemed to be the worst. Finally he’d stop talking about his gut made of steel and unparalleled superhuman powers. “I only eat at dives. The dirtiest dives you could imagine!! And still, I have not once been sick on this trip! Just eat where the locals eat! You don’t see them walking around sick, do you?

He lay in bed all morning and afternoon and not even the rare and critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin could wake him from his trance. I did what any girl would do. I bought him a bag of sticky rice and a wedge of pineapple and told him I was off in search of the Irrawaddy dolphin.

I closed the hotel door, ran down the stairs and hopped into a tuk tuk with a group of friends. I had high hopes of seeing these critically endangered dolphins. Less than 90 remain in the Mekong River, while larger populations still inhabit places like Bangladesh.

For the next hour our tuk tuk driver skirted up the same pot-holed dirt road that we drove down just the prior day. After crossing the border we had entered our fifth and final country in Southeast Asia: Cambodia.

Once again, we passed by the dolphin-themed karaoke bars, women dressed in their flowered pajama sets, and children on their oversized bikes. I can only guess that some NGO in the past distributed a few truckloads of adult sized bikes and that the kids learned to make do. They worked them like elliptical machines and with each revolution of the crank their tiny bodies would rise into the air and fall back down again. These kids were powerhouses, often times carrying a friend or sibling on the back seat.

I was happy. Cambodia seemed to be everything I thought it shouldn’t be, especially given its horrendous history and all around poverty. It was a place with moody skies, green fields, dirt roads, thatched hut homes with red tiled roofs and beautiful people. It was also evident by the first day that we’d be travelling through one of the poorest countries in our travels thus far.

Back on the tuk tuk we continued down the long straight road. As we approached a shoddy looking bridge our driver slowed to stop and motioned for us all to get out. Would he race away as soon as we got out of the carriage? No, the bridge was just in such a state of disrepair that it was safer to walk rather than drive across in a tuk tuk at full capacity.

In order to see the Irrawaddy dolphins it’s a bit of a game. Like all attractions in these parts of the world, you’re not going see anything for free. A boat must be taken, even if it only travels five minutes upstream, and if heaven forbid it is possible to see something for free from the shores, you can rest assured that they will build a wall to hide it from your view. So we followed our designated boat captain down to the water, just a mere boy really, and like all Cambodians (and Asians for that matter) was dressed in long sleeves and pants to protect his skin from the sun.

Sometimes it can take me a while to notice the simplest of cultural differences. And then one day it just stands out like a sore thumb. This is one of those differences: wearing sunscreen is very much a Western concept. Asians do not tan in the sun- they don’t even let their skin see the light of day. Hats, masks, socks, and gloves are big business here.

Braaapppp…Braaappp…Braapp…Brap! Brap! Brap!  The engine on Boat 21 was irritatingly loud considering that we were in search of the region’s critically endangered dolphins. I was shocked that this was standard procedure. We motored up the river for just a few minutes and parked next to an outcropping of weeds which our captain used to secure the boat in place.

Now it was time to wait. To see or not to see? Earlier in the hour, two Germans had told us that they had tried to spot the dolphins for two days, but for two days had seen nothing. And so we waited in a motionless state, entirely at the mercy of the dolphins.

After a short time, I could hear a sound nearby. Psshhhh…psshhhhh…psshhhh.  It was the sound of a small family of dolphins releasing the water from their lungs and coming up for air. They knew we were there and circled our boat in a clockwise motion for the entire hour; disappearing and rising back up again, quickly revealing their shiny backs and dorsal fins.  We constantly shifted in our seats watching their every move. While I never saw a face I knew they had a silly grin that stretched from eye to eye, as their nickname was the “smiling face of the Mekong.”

They were so consistent in their actions that I didn’t even have to watch to know what they were doing. With the sound of each re-surface I knew where they were and in which direction they were moving. The sunset was gorgeous that night. In one direction the sky exploded in vertical bands of blue and in the other direction, fluffy clouds lit up among a motley of yellows, oranges, and reds.

No wonder the Irrawaddy dolphins live here.

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12
Sep 2013
POSTED BY Sheena
POSTED IN

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 6 Comments

A Chance Encounter

It all started with a note clipped under Nacho’s windshield wiper.

Hello friends- I am a fellow Volkswagen T3 owner and have some questions for you about your set up. Please call and we will meet up. – Soenke

We found the note shortly after we had wandered out of our hotel and into Nacho’s living quarters. As we cooked our morning eggs and espresso three shoeless kids in tattered clothing wandered past our open sliding door. As they passed by they froze mid-step and stared at us like little does in a set of headlights. They had never seen a kitchen inside a car.

I invited them in. Whatever they were doing and wherever they were going didn’t seem to matter anymore. Two sat next to me on the couch and the last one stood facing us. They were enamored by all of the new objects around them and wanted to touch every last one of them. They pointed to every book on the shelf and I obliged, hypnotized by their gorgeous chocolate eyes and radiant smiles. I showed them photos of India and Laos, and plenty of other photos that looked just like their back yard. They peered inside our empty sticky rice container and I could see the confusion in their eyes. If we didn’t store our sticky rice here, where did we store it? They found everything and wanted everything. Mostly though, they wanted our food. They rubbed their bellies and stared at the eggs in the pan.

Suddenly, the hotel staff member who slept on a cot in the hotel lobby rushed over to the van, worried. He could only see that our door was open and that kids were inside. We told him everything was a-okay—we had invited these little rug rats in with us.

It was a weekday and I asked the staff member why these kids weren’t in school.

He seemed surprised by the question. “These kids don’t go to school. They are poor children. They find bottles on the street and collect them for their families to sell.” He moved to the side to display the evidence: the children’s plastic burlap bags. They were massive—big enough to hold a few hundred bottles. So far they only had a handful but it was only eight in the morning and they still had the whole day ahead of them.

The whole thing just sucked. It was all so wrong and unfair and I wondered how these kids would ever break the cycle of poverty. How could they though if they never even got the chance to go to school?

We packaged up a bag of fruit for the children and gave them a stupid little stuffed animal that I had promised my family I’d take pictures of. I was quite certain they’d cherish it more than I would.

Well, that’s Cambodia for you. It’s sad and beautiful all at the same time.

Soenke, the man who had left the note on our windshield turned out to be a blue eyed German man. He had married a sweet Cambodian lady and now split his time between Cambodia and Germany. He had just bought a boat and kindly invited us to join his family on a sunset tour around the nearby island. We instantly accepted. He said we could even invite our friends—the more the merrier. And it just so happened that we had some friends to invite. We had met a few new faces just that day on a bike ride on the same island that we’d be circumnavigating on our sunset boat ride.

Soenke met us in front of the hotel and led us down a road that paralleled the Mekong. In the center of a maze of streets he led us to his home—a true mansion in comparison to the stilted homes that surrounded his. His home had glass windows and the walls were painted and made of brick and mortar. The driveway was a clean sheet of cement and the bottom floor was a combined garage and commercial space. We cut through his backyard and in between the neighboring yards until we reached a steep embankment that dropped down to the shore.

“Now I have to tell you, I have a medical kit but I don’t have any life jackets. You enter my boat at your own risk!” It made no difference to Brad and me. I felt pretty sure I could maintain a butterfly stroke across the Mekong if push came to shove.

Soenke passed by us and waved us on. “Ah yes, here is my new boat!”

It was a tiny boat, and easily the smallest boat I had been on in recent memory. We slipped off our sandals and piled onto a wooden platform overlaid with a decorated bamboo mat. Beside Brad and me sat our new friends Karen and Heath, Soenke and his wife, her father, and another family member. Soenke climbed in last and worked his way to the far end, viciously rocking the boat from side to side. I thought we would likely sink, but I made it unknown. Karen and I locked eyes and it looked like hers were going to pop from their sockets. We made for a comical site. I wasn’t sure what we had gotten ourselves into, but something about it was fun. I felt like we were going on a danger picnic.

Brad assured me us that since we were on a boat, which by design is wider at the top, it would be nearly impossible to sink the boat at its current capacity.

“The lower the boat rides in the water, the more pressure it takes to sink it. Seriously, we’d need twice as many people in here before we’d have a problem.”

I felt better. [editor’s note: making up sciency-sounding reassurances is a great way to make your spouse feel good in times of despair]

As we motored against the current I attempted to talk to Soenke’s father-in-law. He was positioned last on the boat and I was his only company. Our conversation involved many blank stares and silent pauses and despite my constant answer of “no”, he proudly asked me over and over again, “Parlez-vous Frances?” Like many older Cambodians and Laotians, he could speak French. I nudged at Karen and begged for her to be my translator. She was from Quebec but she said Soenke’s father-in-law was incomprehensible. His accent was just too strong.

As we rounded a bend Soenke’s father-in-law pointed down the river toward a few dozen homes that rested above the water. “Vietnam, Vietnam!” This area was known locally as the Vietnamese floating village. We passed by and peered into a world of fishing nets, wooden boats, and homes patched together with wood, dried palm leaves and scraps of tin. Wardrobes hung from bamboo poles outside and despite the very evident lack of resources, every home had electricity for their bare hanging light bulbs and television sets: the ultimate luxury in these areas.

The sun was beginning to set and I was starting to feel hungry. Fortunately I had come prepared, having bought a snack of steamed sticky rice and coconut milk inside of a bamboo stick. I tried to open it myself, but Soenke’s father-in-law quickly confiscated it from me. He took the bamboo and rolled it against the deck like a rolling pin, loosening the sticky rice from the inner walls of the bamboo. He dug his nails into the giant wad of leaf roughage that served to plug the end, and discarded it in the Mekong. And then, like a banana, he peeled the bamboo siding down in layers. The rice held its shape: one gelatinous floppy tube of goo. Everyone broke off a chunk and enjoyed its subtle coconut sweetness.

As we rounded the far tip of the island a new setting appeared before us. The trees disappeared and only a grassy field and a sandy stretch of beach remained. I thought maybe we’d stop but we kept going. We cut the engine and finally began moving in the direction of the current. It was quiet and peaceful and as the sun set the guys practiced their gondolier skills. Brad was fond of his new role and brought us all the way back home.

I felt lucky—lucky to have had this chance encounter with Soenke and his family, and also to see new things and make new friends. Inevitably, these types of chance encounters always beg the question: who we will meet next?

Back on land we walked down Kratie’s boardwalk. In our hands, two servings of ice cream melted in their bowls, the remnants of us accidentally ordering durian-flavored ice cream. Near the end of the busy boardwalk a vehicle called out to us. It appeared to be lit up the way a vehicle is lit up when it is lived in. Just like the Cambodian kids, we walked past the open sliding door and stopped mid-step to stare inside. Chad and Chompa, the Indian-born couple from England eagerly invited us into their home—a converted Sprinter van—where we spent the next couple of hours sharing stories of home and the road, drinking tea, and reminiscing of our old lives.

 

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