Spots of Time

February 24, 2004

The Road to Cambodia

The road to Cambodia is full of pot holes - huge gaping voids. More dirt than rock, more outback than highway, its roads rival those of the poorest African countries and rank among the worst in the world. The dry dusty red powder that blankets the roadways is constantly circulated by passing carts, bikes, trucks and cars - coating the surrounding vegetation like rust-colored spray paint and making it difficult to keep anything clean.

Despite the relatively straight stretches of road, drivers navigate like drunk men, swerving and swaying from side to side, right side and left, in an effort to keep axels intact and tires inflated. Their cars or bikes or trucks are their livelihood - a broken axel is more than the loss of a vehicle - it means the difference between having money for food and not having it.

In our ten day journey through Cambodia, Sasha and I spent four of them traveling on what passes for the country's roads. You can see a lot from the road.

The road to Cambodia is void of more than just asphalt and concrete. It is a void of human souls. A war torn country, its people are scattered like a thousand puzzle pieces, with half of them missing or broken. Everywhere you go you see men and women with missing limbs - victims of still buried land mines. Every family has a story about a missing sister, brother, cousin, uncle, or mother - a genocide to rival that of the Jews in Europe, yet few know more than loose details.

The road to Cambodia is like a trip through time. Air-conditioned Toyota Camry "taxis" pass men transporting squealing pigs on motorbikes, trucks piled high with watermelons, bags of rice or laborers, and two-wheeled wooden oxcarts reminiscent of the Middle Ages, strapped to miniature horses driven by young men sitting on bales of hay.

The road to Cambodia passes through the ancient temples of Ankor, a civilization of ancient wonder, whose million inhabitants far surpassed the population of London during the same time period. A civilization that rivals any of the Ancient Wonders of the World, yet was missing from the Greek's ethnocentric list of locals. A piece of history that somehow managed to withstand sacking from the Siamese and Burmese empires, as well as the more recent Khmer Rouge.

The road to Cambodia is lined with fuel stops - thought not the kind a Westerner would recognize. Rows of two-liter bottles, rescued from Coke, Sprite and Johnny Walker Black line the streets, and fill the tanks of motorbikes whisking tourists from temple to temple, site to site. Dollars are the currency of choice and every shop keeper and stand owner has a tale of woe to share with you, hoping you will buy from them. The sad part is, the tales are all real and all too plentiful.

The road to Cambodia is lined with the signs of political parties - Sam Rainey, Cambodia People's Party, and Democratic People's Republic. A casual visitor might imagine a country embracing democracy, a country trying to get on their feet after years of civil war and strife. But front page pictures in the newspaper show the current leaders - men formerly associated with the Khmer Rouge, the military force that, under the leadership of Pol Pot, massacred millions of Cambodian men, women and children. How can a new world begin when the old world never had to answer for its crimes? And, continues to rule, full of smiles but short on memory?

The road to Cambodia if full of people missing arms and legs, missing parents and children, missing husbands and wives. I see it through the eyes of a white wealthy stranger, someone who has never had to endure civil war, poverty, or fear that my neighbors might sell me out to the authorities (whoever they happen to be at the time). I see it also as a friend of a Cambodian refugee, a now US-citizen who fled her war-torn land as a child, never to return. A kindred spirit, a woman who shares my birthday and my love of travel, I always wondered why she never came back, why she never talks about her experience or that of her family. In every female face at Tuol Sleng genocide museum I saw what could have been hers - and in every story told I wondered. I think maybe I understand - when you have been to hell and back there is no reason to make a return journey.

The road to Cambodia is full of faces - most of which I will never remember. Yet, one stands out. The border town child, her face full of smiles, despite the fact that I did not buy from her. Instead I talked to her and her friend - some in English, some in Thai and all in smiles. As we were about to leave, she tapped on the window of the mini bus and beckoned for me to open it. When I did she took my wrist and put on a pink woven bracelet. I protested, but she said, "no charge for you." She smiled and said, "When you come back - I will remember you." I almost cried as the bus pulled away.

I'm sorry to admit that her name is already a memory, and her face is fading fast. Yet somehow I know, I will always remember her, too.

February 04, 2004

And Then There Were Two

Hello again! I bet you thought it was all over! Well, you were wrong! Spots of Time continues! I'm not sure for how long, or how regularly, but after a month break, I decided it was time to get back to business. First, I liked writing the column. Second, legions of fans said they missed it. (Ok, three - and one was a relative...) And, third, it somehow seems wrong to stop the stories in the middle of my trip.

As an added bonus, my web master, fellow writer Bradley Charbonnau (and new father!) is reworking my web site. So, stay tuned for a fab new site complete wtih New Stories! New Pictures! Scratch and Sniff Screens! Time Travel Capablities! (OK, kidding about the last two. However, as Sasha would tell you, the Scratch and Sniff screen would be the LAST thing you wanted to know about Asia. Did I mention my regular haunt in BKK is across from a fish market?????)

Miss you all and hope you are well!

Love,
Melanie

"I thought you were kidnapped!" my brother yelled at me, as I emerged from the public bathroom in the shopping mall in downtown Manila. "You were in there forever!"

"The line was like 40 woimen thick!" I said with a tinge of annoyance in my voice. "And, once I realized it was going to take forever, I was in the middle of the line and there was no way I was going to break out of it to tell you I would be a few extra minutes!"

There is a huge difference between traveling alone and traveling with someone else. When you are alone, no one is looking out for you, worrying what time you will meet them, where you will be or what you will do tomorrow. But, when you are traveling with a companion, this all changes. Suddenly, even the time you take in the bathroom is important.

Just over one month ago, my brother joined me in Bangkok for two months of travel adventure, family bonding time, and as much sun, surf and sand as we could fit. Since then, we've traveled in three countries, on more bad roads than I care to remember, and gotten to know each other as grown up siblings. Oh, and we've had to adjust to spending 24/7 with each other. No small feat considering the last time we spend this much time together was....well, never.

For over a year, I was the master of my own fate. I was the director, talent coordinator and producer of my travel documentary. I answered to no one, and no one answered to me. This was great in some ways, but not so great in others.

Now, there are two minds doing all the planning, dealing with all the inconveniences, and enjoying all the experiences. And, as much as I am surprised to say this (stuck in the world of independence that I am) I quite like having a travel companion. In fact, I would go so far as to say it is more fun than traveling alone!

Traveling, especially in a third world nation, can be confusing, difficult, and frustrating. And, with a language barrier - very isolating. Having someone with you makes it easier to joke about the problems, get past the bull shit, and laugh when you want to cry.

Traveling with a partner means there are times when you can say, I don't want to decide. You make the plan. This seems like a little thing, but really it is huge. Traveling is not all fun and adventure. It is constant planning and decision making. There are days when you just don't want to think - and on those days, you just say to your travel companion - you decide.

Traveling with family, as opposed to anyone else, also has some humbling qualities. Being a "little brother" means political correctness is not a norm Sasha deals with in his relations with me, the older sister. When I make a mistake or am caught being rude or condescening or whatever other of my many faults, he calls me out on it. Frankly, its annoying - at first (ok, all the time!). But, when you know it comes from love, you have to face it and then move on. And whether you like it or not, you grow from it.

It's not all sunshine and roses, however. We've had our share of fights. Two strong personalities, and being relatives to boot, means that lashing out can happen and often does. While two of my friends take to wrestling each other when they get annoyed, I realize Sasha would crush me - so we just yell at each other for a while. But, considering how much we fought in high school - when we each had our own room, our own friends and our own "space" - I think we are doing really, really well.

Sure, there are things I miss about traveling alone. My own room, whenever I want it. Being able to change my mind without a conversation (or a debate). Not needing to wait for anyone to get ready, finish showering or get their ass out of bed. But, they are little things and I know that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

Having my brother with me has opened my eyes to things that I would not have seen otherwise. Seeing a third world country through the eyes of someone who has never travelled in one before. Private jokes that keep us laughing on long bus rides or while waiting for our food to be cooked. Someone to pick you up when you are feeling down - whether worn down by sickness, travel or stress.

I'll end by borrowing the (AmEx? MasterCard?) commercial we all know and love.

1. Thai banana fritters (served to you barehanded by a woman who had previously been massaging her dirty feet): 20 baht ($.50 US)

2. Dinner for two at a Cambodian street stall (served to you by the same waitress who, while taking your order, had a finger actively digging in her nose): 3000 reils each ($1 US)

3. Paying extra for a 20-bed room on an overnight ferry in the Philippines (then ending up in a 100 bunk bed room while the porter says, same price, same price): 800 pesos each ($16.00 US)

Sharing it all with your little brother and realizing you will have these memories for a lifetime:

PRICELESS.