“Once globalization and development have homogenized and sanitized the world – quite often for the best – it will no longer be possible for even the most self-indulgent and romantic among us to maintain the illusion that what we are doing is anything other than not-particularly-glorified tourism. If all the classic elements of backpacker stories have gradually become clichés, we might as well pause to acknowledge that they were surprisingly fun clichés while they lasted. And if we now insist that all these clichés fetishize a certain impossible notion of authenticity, while coming dangerously close to essentializing foreign countries as premodern, we should also pause to confess that we enjoyed them anyway.”
–Nicholas Danforth, World travel can be all about timing, San Francisco Chronicle, September 20, 2012
You’re standing in a train station, staring at two signs. Back and forth your head swivels. Likely the words on these signs are the end destination points of the train line.
But they could be anything. The language printed on the signs is complete gibberish to your eyes. In fact, it doesn’t even look like a language — these swooping, artistic curves and flat-topped characters.
You take a deep breath and choose a sign based on gut instinct. Usually your gut guides you down the correct path, following unseen sign posts. But today — if you’re being completely honest with yourself — your gut didn’t make a decision. It was as flabbergasted as you at the sight of these foreign characters, so unlike words you could at least puzzle out.
Before this happens to you on your next trip, download a language translation app to translate those signs into meaning.
Here are the top five language translation apps:
1. Google Translate
The app that lets you do everything: read a foreign language, translate any text (even handwriting), and converse with another person as the app translates. This app translate instantly via text, phone or voice. It includes Word Lens: point your camera to a sign or text, the app translate it without an internet/data connection. Perfect for mastering those foreign transportation systems.
The only app that gives you an instant visual translation of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean characters. Simply point and translate signs and food menus. No Internet connection needed. This app will smooth any hiccups in navigating a new transportation system.
3. iVoice Translator Pro
($0.99, Apple Store)
A personal, double-sided translation service that lets two people talking two different language to speak using the app. Speak into the app and it translates for you. It’s like having a personal, mini translator in your pocket.
4. iStone Travel Translation
(Free, Apple Store)
A simple app containing over 300 daily, common phrases in several languages. To get cool features like text to speech to hear the phrase, you have to purchase the paid version ($4.99).
5. myLanguage Free Translator
(Free, Apple Store)
An older translation app that has grown into a powerful translator thanks to a huge database of 59 languages. It’s free to download and, a rarity these days, it’s free of advertisements within the app. You can get voice translation, but in a separate app.
Bonus language translation app:
(Free, only on Samsung Galaxy S5)
A preloaded app that translates text or speech for you. You can download language packs for differently regions of the world. An extensive section of the app has preset phrases commonly used, like where’s the bathroom? Only downside to this app is you need a data or Internet connection for it to work.
Laura Lopuch blogs at Waiting To Be Read where she helps you find your next favorite book… and explains why reading expands your mind.
Capetown, in the Republic of South Africa, is a beautiful city. Filled with natural beauty, a booming waterfront and access to all things penguin, Capetown quickly draws you in. Whether you’re looking to hike Table Mountain, shop at local markets, cavort with Boulder Beach’s penguin colonies or take in a history lesson of Africa’s Apartheid, Capetown is a special city.
Not everything about travel is happy. Those who have visited concentration camps in Europe, walked through gravesites of Cambodian genocide or listened to survivor’s stories after some of history’s most gruesome atrocities know first hand that travel often yields tears, rips off rose-coloured glasses and forces its visitors to see the world through different eyes. Robben Island is well worth the visit. For anyone into world schooling or choosing other alternative educational strategies, this visit is one for the history books.
Remnants of South Africa’s checkered past are palpable throughout many parts of the country. In the mid-twentieth century, South Africa was ripe with Apartheid. Backed by earlier beliefs of racism, Apartheid’s practices made segregation, law. Apartheid forcibly separated people while providing those in power with a platform to punish those vehemently opposed to it. Nelson Mandela had been active in civil actions, protests and movements from his youth. Later, he became a campaign leader and spokesperson for a civil disobedience campaign against injustice, persecution and racism. He was imprisoned on Robben Island for his actions and beliefs, yet, in 1994, became the Republic of South Africa’s first democratically elected president.
A day on Robben Island is rather telling of the times of Apartheid. Although not uplifting, it’s an experience necessary to continue to share the story and teachings of South Africa’s history to be sure it is not again repeated. Depending on the season, it’s best to make a booking ahead of time. The ferry from the Nelson Mandela terminal at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront takes guests out to the island. After watching a short twenty-five minute video, guests disembark and board awaiting busses. “Driven by freedom’ and ‘We’re on this journey together’ cover the sides of the vehicles already denoting the positive energy, determination and struggle guests are about to see.
Originally designed as a Leper Colony, the island was used to house political prisoners of the anti-Apartheid movement over a period of time in South Africa’s history. Narrating as the bus moves, a guide describes the houses and buildings of those who helped to start the anti-government movement, such as Robert Sebukwe. The era’s injustices are palpable. Focusing on the narrator’s words, the passengers quietly focus as the bus traverses the seaside coastline of this island that housed pain, struggle, strength, wisdom and endless fortitude. Exiting the bus after the forty-five minute journey, guests are laughed at since they actually paid for an opportunity to be ‘sent to prison’. Although understandable, it is quite ironic.
Former political prisoners are guides for the walking portion of the tour. My guide was Glen. Having been housed in Robben Island, his sentence was cut short at the official end of Apartheid. Through struggle and triumph, Glen chose to return to the island after he was released. He and his family are today part of the one hundred-person community still living on the island. Regaling us with stories of his life and what prisoners were forced to do, we followed him throughout the prison. It wasn’t easy. In front of us was Mandela’s tiny cell. We even took a trip to the lime quarry where Mandela and others were forced to work for long hours over the course of many days. While using one infinitesimal cave for learning, teaching, shade and bathroom purposes, they struggled through the tragic times.
As we walked, we felt them right beside us. This is one of those solemn places to stop and take a look around. Here, staring inhumanity in the face, they prevailed. Here we learn from history and continue to share their stories with others to remember, to endure and to continue their work. Here where others saw strife, Mandela saw triumph. Here where others saw detainment, Mandela saw vision and a chance to teach. Here, where others saw despair, Mandela saw hope.
As there was often discussion taking place in the prison, Mandela renamed it, the ‘university’. We learned how prisoners got news, which was or wasn’t allowed to meet with a priest and about Mandela’s garden. Mandela’s garden was his sacred spot. Buried deep in the ground was Mandela’s manuscript. Piece by piece, through hollowed out heels in shoes and sliced pages in photo albums, courageous individuals risked inhumane punishment to bring Mandela’s message to the world. Bold choices and great risks were taken by many – all daring to dream for a brighter future and a more equal South Africa. Mandela’s strength is a lesson to us all.
Robben Island is definitely worth the visit. With its natural surrounding beauty, history of all kinds and struggle for people’s rights, Capetown’s Robben Island is a lesson in just one visit. Exuding indomitable spirit, perseverance, dedication to a cause and conviction beyond measure, Mandela continues to teach all visitors through his continued journey.
For more of Stacey’s musings of life and travel, check out her website.
If there is one thing about long-term travel that is underestimated, it is the challenges that come with it. Living indefinitely on the road is not always wonderful. Sometimes it requires choices that are painful and challenging. Do not get me wrong. I love long-term travel, but in all honesty it is not a lifestyle made for everyone.
I have talked to dozens of writers, travelers, and bloggers all over the world.
Many of these people love traveling equally if not more than me, but even so many have told me that long-term travel is not for them, and there is no shame in that fact.
However, for those of us that pursue this lifestyle, the rewards are great. Let’s delve into some of the challenges and rewards that come from living on the road long-term.
I want to tread carefully here because I don’t want to discredit or insult the hundreds of friendships I have made while traveling. All of the friendships I have made are meaningful and unique. I have met up with some of these friends time and again in different countries. Some of the most meaningful relationships that have impacted my life in irreversible ways have been made while traveling. I cherish these deep friendships and always look forward to when the road brings us back together.
However, most relationships made while traveling are normally the product of random encounters or out of convenience. Unless you are staying in the same place for a long period of time, many of these friendships are brief, yet intense. Basically, bonds of friendship are formed quickly but before you know it, that person is on the other side of the planet and you have to start again.
Another aspect that is encountered while traveling long-term is growing apart from childhood friends. Staying in touch is difficult because of hectic routines and different time zones. Due to the brevity of on the road friendships and growing apart from your lifelong friends sometimes makes you feel completely alone. It can almost be overwhelming as if not a soul in the world truly knows or understands you.
Long-term travelers watch every penny they spend. This means that they are likely to be living in hostel dorm rooms and taking overnight buses.
Therefore, privacy is something that is rare and many times in order to be polite, you have to talk to people when you would just rather read a book, write in your journal, or close your eyes and take a nap.
It can be very frustrating when people turn on the lights at 3 A.M. or use your shoulder as a comfortable pillow on an overnight bus ride.
The reward of no privacy is that you meet interesting people from all over the world. You learn about different cultures and customs first hand and with vivid details. You are also forced to break out of your shell and talk to anyone about almost anything for hours.
Plus, waking up in a new place is an exhilarating feeling. One of my favorite travel quotes states “To awaken alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.” – Freya Stark
There are many long-term travel couples out there; I am just not one of them. For me dating is something from the past. When you are constantly on the move, having a relationship is not just tough, it is practically impossible.
Honestly, I have ended great relationships with girls I really care about, and vice versa, because our lives were headed in different directions. I did not expect them to change their lives for me and I knew I could not change my life for them.
I’m not going to lie; there have been times where I have accomplished a goal, got to a destination I have dreamed about, or have been watching a sunset, and in the back of my mind I wished someone was there to share it with me.
This challenge varies from person to person, however, I know for me to accomplish the goals I have set, I need to be alone. The benefit is that I can focus on my goals, go where I want, and when I want. Every new adventure, every foreign country, and every fulfilled dream leads me closer to my goals and vision.
Long-term travel is not easy. It is a lifestyle that demands as much as it gives.
For me the rewards out way the challenges. The simplicity and beauty of this life gives me fulfillment and peace. I never grow tired of seeing other countries, interacting with other cultures, and exploring this wonderful planet.
If it is a life-style that appeals to you, I urge you to take the leap.
Stephen Schreck has conquered the challenges of long-term traveler, and has experienced its grand rewards. You can follow his travels around the world on A Backpackers Tale.
There has been a debate raging within the education community recently. It seems many educators, policy makers, and even some parents feel that taking children out of school to travel is a bad idea. Some have even gone so far as to say traveling with children during school time should be banned and parents who ignore the ban should face consequences. Did you know that many states in the United States actually deem it “illegal”?
After hearing so much about this I had three main questions bouncing around in my head.
1. When the heck did spending time with your kid become “illegal”? How did I miss that?
2. Why have we stop recognizing learning that happens freely, without coercion, and outside of a structured classroom?
3. Shouldn’t we be taking a closer look at a system that is so rigid that a few days away makes it “impossible” to catch up and spending less time vilifying travel?
While I certainly recognize the benefits of education, I fail to see how anyone could possibly argue that any type of travel is detrimental to a child’s learning experience. Arguments about what is “educational” or not absolutely escape me since I see learning happening all around me, all the time. School is but one place where learning takes place. Should we really be teaching our children that if they are not in school then they can’t possibly be learning? Don’t we think that might backfire at some point down the line?
It is particularly baffling that there seems to be a need to label an undesirable action by a parent as “illegal”. Especially an acton that is meant to enhance a child’s family connection and exposure to the world. It makes me wonder, what is gained? I recognize that most teachers feel pressure to “catch a child up” once he or she returns from being away but is that challenge really worth taking away a parent’s ability to make decisions for their family by threatening them with legal action? It seems obvious that the real issue is a school system that is so rigid that a child can’t miss any time and still be confident in their learning experience. The pressure teachers feel to catch a kid up- whether they are traveling or sick- is a product of that rigid system, a system that judges a teacher’s worth by their student’s ability to perform. That would stress me out too! I just wonder why we aren’t worrying about that web of disfunction instead of using energy to punish parents for taking their kids out into the world. After all, whose kids are they?
Before you say it, I know what you might be thinking. “Not every travel experience is educational.” But actually, they are. Every single one. How can I be so sure? Because getting out of your comfort zone, trying something new, watching those close to you problem solve, spending time doing “nothing” and seeing where “nothing” takes you, learning to fit your needs into one bag, and having to make compromises in unfamiliar territory is never, ever anything but educational. While plenty of book reading and scientific exploration happens on many family trips, more important than that is the self exploration and the deepening of family connections. That time is never a waste and, I would argue, it’s far, far more important than any test score they may receive when they get back.
I don’t care if you are headed to the Great Pyramids of Giza or a local beach, travel is beneficial. Varied experiences is what makes a life worth living. Stealing that from our kids by putting their parent’s backs up against a wall is wrong, plain and simple. While school might offer great benefits for many children, it does not offer the only benefits and it does not fulfill the needs of every child. Do we really want a society of non-travelers? Do we want our future leaders to be good rule followers who never operate outside of the pre-defined box or do we want adventurers who take risks, enjoy investigating new places and ideas, and know when to challenge the status quo?
Traveling often implies a few things about food. In Thailand, for example, it’s assumed that visitors are interested in diversifying their palates and will order Thai iced tea, pad see ew or panang curry, eschewing plain old burgers and pizza. And so, it is a given that most meals will be eaten at a restaurant or a street cart. It makes sense that you’d opt for local fare to taste what the country grows, what they typically eat, and how deliciously they prepare their food. Sometimes, you walk away from your table at the end of the night and wonder how dishes like the ones you tried are even possible to make!
Could they have been delicately marinating that meat for days? Did they make all those thin noodles by hand? What spices could possibly have produced such an unusual and delectable flavour? These are questions I find myself asking (to nobody in particular) whenever I travel.
Another implication from travel is that you will not have an opportunity to cook anything yourself until you get back home. Hotels rarely have kitchens for guests to use, and when they do, the price is often out of reach for the average traveller. Quenching this desire to cook and answer any lingering questions about Thai food can be done by booking a very entertaining and inexpensive cooking class.
A record 23 million passengers are expected to take cruises around the globe in 2015, according to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which recently made the projection in its annual State of the Cruise Industry Report.
Admittedly, I have never been a fan of ocean cruising. As a long-term, independent traveler who immerses in the culture of the countries I visit, the idea of being trapped on a ship that visits ports of call for a few brief hours is more than a little off-putting. To that, add the issue of seasickness. During the two specialty ocean cruises I have taken, seas were so rough that I spent more time curled up in my bunk than I did enjoying the voyage. And then I discovered river cruising.
A record 23 million passengers are expected to take cruises around the globe in 2015, according to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA)
My first experience, in 2011, was the Luang Say Cruise down the Mekong river from Houei Say to Luang Prabang in northern Laos. Within minutes of departure, razor-sharp rocks protruding from the chocolate river had forced us into narrow channels topped by frothy rapids. Our captain so expertly navigated the turbulence that the gentle motion of the ship lulled me to sleep on the sun deck. Each day offered opportunities to visit hill tribe villages, where I learned about traditional fishing, weaving and whiskey distilling. Because we were sailing a river, there were no long, boring days at sea, and our gourmet meals often featured fresh fish, purchased from fishermen who paddled up to the side of the ship. I was in heaven.
A few weeks later, I stepped aboard the Vat Phou Cruise in the Thousand Islands area of the Mekong. It was hard to believe I was on the same river. The southern Mekong was placid, sapphire blue and dotted with thousands of tiny green islets. In addition to traditional village visits and gourmet meals, this river cruise featured a day long visit to the spectacular pre-Khmer Vat Phou ruins. I was hooked.
I am not alone in my passion. For CLIA North American brands, river cruising has been growing by more than 25% per annum in recent years, as opposed to an average annual growth rate of 4.83% in the ocean cruise category. To meet the increasing demand, 39 new river ships will come on line this year. Viking River Cruises is building and launching river ships at twice the rate of its competitors. Over the past four years, they have launched 40 new Longships, which recently topped Condé Nast Traveler’s annual readers’ Cruise Poll for best river cruise ships. The Longship design includes a revolutionary all-weather indoor/outdoor terrace that has retractable floor-to-ceiling glass doors, allowing guests to fully enjoy the views and dine al fresco, as well as green upgrades that include on-board solar panels, organic herb gardens, and energy-efficient hybrid engines. Viking will launch 12 more new river vessels in 2015, ten of which will be Longships.
This past fall, I sailed from Moscow to St. Petersburg, Russia on Viking River’s Waterway of the Tsars cruise. Though my ship was fully booked, the small capacity of 204 passengers and a 2-to-1 guest to staff ratio made for a very personalized experience. Tours, on-board activities, and a full program of lectures ensured there was something to do most every waking minute, but most impressive was Viking’s commitment to on-shore cultural programs. Activities such as riding the Moscow metro, attending a performance of traditional Russian folkloric music, sharing tea in the home of a family in rural Russia, and visiting a Kommunalka to experience a Communist-era communal form of living still practiced by many St. Petersburg residents provided me with unexpected insight into Russian culture. This focus on cultural programming is one of the reasons that Cruise Critic named Viking the “Best River Cruise Line” in the U.S. for the fourth year running in 2014.
“In an expanding river market, Viking continues to reign, thanks in part to exceptional excursions that include exciting and unusual options like truffle hunting and cognac blending,” said the editors of Cruise Critic.
Along with new ships, river cruise operators continue to develop itineraries in exotic destinations around the world. Sanctuary Retreats’ 10-day cruise on the Nile from Aswan Dam to Cairo includes visits to the Valley of the Kings, where magnificent tombs were carved into the desert rocks, as well as to the Rock-tombs of Beni Hassan. In cooperation with National Geographic, Lindblad Expeditions sails the upper Amazon for ten days where, between visits to indigenous villages, guests are treated to pink dolphin, parrot, and piranha sightings. The newest jewel in the river cruise crown is Myanmar, a recently opened country still shrouded in mystery and spirituality. Viking offers a choice of two cruises down the verdant Irrawaddy, passing through Mandalay, Yangon, and Bagan, where 2,200 ancient temples unfurl along the river’s shores.
Despite the move to open new territories, European river cruises remain the mainstay of the industry. With no need to change hotels and historic city centers just footsteps away from the dock, river cruising may be the world’s most convenient and comfortable way to experience the great European capitals of the world. From cruises that explore the tulips and windmills of Amsterdam and Belgium to those that focus on the Christmas Markets of Austria and Germany in November and December, the choices are endless. As for me, I can hardly wait for my next river cruise. The only difficult part may be deciding where to go.
When Barbara Weibel realized she felt like the proverbial “hole in the donut” – solid on the outside but empty on the inside – she walked away from corporate life and set out to see the world. Read first-hand accounts of the places she visits and the people she meets on her blog, Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel. Follow her on Facebook or on Twitter (@holeinthedonut).
After the teacher asked if anyone had
a sacred place
and the students fidgeted and shrank
in their chairs, the most serious of them all
said it was his car,
being in it alone, his tape deck playing
things he’d chosen, and others knew the truth
had been spoken
and began speaking about their rooms,
their hiding places, but the car kept coming up,
the car in motion,
music filling it, and sometimes one other person
who understood the bright altar of the dashboard
and how far away
a car could take him from the need
to speak, or to answer, the key
in having a key
and putting it in, and going.
During random social occasions it’s always with a pinch of pride and much more self-pity that I gulp down when I am introduced to new acquaintances as a “writer”. In fact, once my friends drop the “W word”, the person who until a moment ago was thinking “who’s this long-haired nerd standing in the way to the bar” always steps back with eyes and mouth open wide. It’s a moment of mutual awe, as if we were some sort of postmodern Adam and Eve discovering that, besides the proverbial red apple, there’s also sex.
“A writer?” circumstantial gulp, followed by a courteous “VERY pleased to meet you”, and there comes the name which, I’m afraid, I’m never too good at remembering the first time.
Writer. You don’t know what it means until you leave the trench of anonymity and jump out in a battlefield which is far scarier. A place where you must constantly reload your rifle with effective pitches, and shoot them as far and wide as you can, trying to aim straight at editors’ heads. But you only have one shot to impress.
Putting it in a world traveller perspective – my particular niche -, you become one of the poachers headed for an illegal safari hunt. Think of the animals as the assignments you must land: Once you see a running antelope, a very fast one, it’s a highbrow masthead. And it’s very hard to get for newbies, because we can’t shoot that fast. Elephant and rhinos, to the contrary, require much expertise. Subtle words, with a corollary of majestic headlines and impressive photographs. When you realize you just can’t, and that you are about to miss the rest of the game, you get back to crouching in the dust and trying your hand at scoring a wombat or two amidst the melee of other young hunter-writers. Literally, it’s a jungle out there.
Believe me: between us and the feeble connection of our timid handshake, your hand that trembles and numbs as it touches mine because you think I have reached some sort of demigod status, please remember that yours is the wrong perception of a profession. In truth, I’m a poor tiny cogwheel in a system, exactly like you, whatever job you do. My only luck is that I am my own boss; but this, think well, can also be the sharpest double-edged sword ever forged.
The real take-home points I wish to make here, besides the obvious “keep your feet on the ground”, is to follow your own voice and ideas. Write about what you know well, and do it in engaging ways which can interest even those who don’t have a minimal interest in what you try to say. And don’t be afraid of having original ideas… journalists call them “angles”. If you think of any geometrical figure, you will find many angles. This means, in practice, that any topic can be tackled from a variety of perspectives. Find the one that nobody, or just very few, have taken previously. Look at this column, for example: I started with a handshake, crossed into the Savannah as a metaphor to describe the publishing world, and have never given you any precise set of rules to follow. However, I am sure that thus far I have taken you by the end where I wanted to, and you have indeed learnt something.
Marco Ferrarese is the author of subcultural noir NAZI GORENG and a freelance travel and culture writer based in Southeast Asia, and metalpunk guitar slinger. He toured most hellholes of Europe and North America, met Kurt Cobain’s alleged murderer, and rode with truckdrivers from Singapore to his native Italy. He blogs at monkeyrockworld.com and you can follow him on Twitter @monkeyrockworld.
Our Cambodian truck driver, who says his name is “Mr. T,” pulls the Nissan pickup to the side of the road and looks back at me expressionlessly. “You get out!” he says. As if to underscore this suggestion, he steps out of the truck himself, unzips his jeans and begins to urinate on the side of the road.
Since I welcome any chance to exit the jammed mini-cab, I follow suit.
I have been riding in Mr. T’s truck long enough to know that he was not being rude with this curt demand. He was merely showing off his arsenal of English phrases, which also includes “I am Mr. T” and “You pay $6.” Every 20 or so minutes, he turns around and says, “This road very bad, ha-ha!” The quip is meant to be a joke, but after two hours of slamming through the unending succession of potholes and washouts known as Cambodia Route 6, I’m not laughing.
Since Route 6 is the only passable road from the Thai border to the ancient Khmer monuments at Angkor Wat, it gets a surprisingly steady stream of tourist traffic. We are currently at the height of dry season, and the road is as brown and featureless as the Texas panhandle in winter. Each time a truck full of glassy-eyed travelers bounces past, I feel like I’m journeying through some sadistic antipode to Disneyland, where the only ride lasts six hours and is designed to underscore just how long, difficult and boring life can be.
As I void my bladder onto the Route 6 shoulder, I notice that my white-haired seatmate, Mr. Cham, is standing a few paces away, watching me. All dandied-up in a brown porkpie hat and a purple polo shirt, Mr. Cham looks like he’s ready for an afternoon at the horse races. I half expect him to break into applause as I take my whiz. Once I’m finished, he hurries down the road to watch the other foreigner — a middle-aged Belgian named Claude — urinate. I’m beginning to suspect that Mr. Cham doesn’t get out of the house much.
Mr. Cham and I have been smashed up against each other in the Nissan mini-cab all morning. For reasons I don’t completely understand, I am sponsoring his ride. The first time I ever saw him was yesterday. He was wearing a black Bon Jovi T-shirt at the time, and had just stolen my sandals. My second encounter with him was this morning, when he showed up at my departure point from a town known as Opasat and informed my Cambodian hosts that I was to pay for his transit to Siem Reap. It seemed like an odd request at the time, but I went ahead and obliged him out of generic courtesy.
Mr. Cham has no personality and smells like a bag of stale Cool Ranch Doritos. If I had it to do all over again, I would have saved $3 back at the truck depot and made him ride in the back of the Nissan with the old women, the chickens and the bags of rice.
As I return to the truck from my toilet break, Mr. T rushes up to cut me off at the door. At first I think there’s some sort of danger, but it turns out he’s just looking for a chance to show off some more English. “You get in!” he says.
In the waning days of the Jimmy Carter administration, when I was about 8 or 9 years old, I dressed up like Batman and, as part of a UNICEF Halloween promotion, went door to door collecting money for the starving children of Cambodia. As I recall, I was far more interested in Batman than Cambodia, and I only mention it now because it occurs to me that Mr. T (who, despite his authoritative name, is no older than me) was probably one of those starving children.
Perhaps out of gratitude all these years later, Mr. T is hell-bent on driving me to Siem Reap as fast as possible. His road style is bold, unorthodox and unnerving, and I’m beginning to suspect that he originally learned how to drive by watching “The Dukes of Hazzard.”
Claude the Belgian, who shelled out $10 for the shotgun seat, is gripping the dashboard with a queasy, defeated look. The rest of the passengers, including Mr. Cham and me, are packed into the mini-cab so tightly that there’s no point in trying to steady ourselves. With each road flaw, our heads bang back and forth in unison, like we’ve just been teleported here from a Judas Priest concert.
Mr. T slows down only for roadblocks that are manned by men with assault rifles. I have yet to figure out if these armed sentries are soldiers or bandits — or if there is even any distinction between those two job descriptions in northwestern Cambodia. The roadblocks seem to be located only in shaded places where one can hang a hammock, and I suspect that anyone in this country with a spare AK-47 and a little initiative can find part-time work as a freelance Route 6 tollkeeper. Mr. T doesn’t pay the tollkeepers much mind, slowing only to toss a 500-riel note (about $0.13) out the window at each roadblock.
When an old codger on a parched section of the highway tries to wave our truck down with a slingshot and a shoddy bundle of sticks, Mr. T slams on the brakes, jumps out of the truck and chases the old man off into the scrub bushes. I’m not exactly sure what nuances lurk behind this confrontation, but it’s the most excitement we’ve had all day. Everyone cheers when Mr. T gets back into the truck.
The strangest detail about Cambodia Route 6 is that it is populated by so many children. Some of them are out fixing road defects with shovels; others help guide the trucks over dilapidated bridges. All of these kids demand a tip for their services, but Mr. T unconditionally ignores them. Lots of the kids are armed with Super Soaker water guns — probably a holdover from the Khmer New Year’s festivities — and we get ambushed with water whenever we slow down.
Were I a sentimental ironist, I might make some dewy-eyed observation about how these kids represent the peace-loving hopes of post-Pol Pot Cambodia — how these gentle, harmless water guns have replaced the tools of genocide. Unfortunately, I’m not so optimistic. The old ladies and chickens in the bed of the Nissan are completely soaked because of these spiteful little extortionists, and each time Mr. T drives past without tipping them, they shake their fists at him in pre-adolescent fury.
Four hours into our journey, we stop at a village for lunch. “You get out,” Mr. T tells me as we coast to a stop in front of a roadside food stand. I get out.
Since I’m not all that hungry, I stand with Claude the Belgian and stretch my legs. I have stopped trying to talk to Claude because he speaks only French and Khmer. What little English he knows is not much better than Mr. T’s repertoire. I try not to hold this against him, since I studied French for two semesters in college, and all I can remember now is that fromage means cheese.
As Claude and I stand in silence, a Cambodian man across the street takes an AK-47 out from the cab of his truck and starts to fire it into the sky. He is part of a large crowd, and all the women in his immediate vicinity start to scream. Even from across the road, the noise of the weapon gives me a start. The only thing that keeps me from running for cover is Claude, who acts as if nothing is happening.
“What the hell is that all about?” I say under my breath, not really expecting an answer.
“Waiting,” Claude says.
“Waiting for what?” I reply, still under my breath.
“Waiting,” Claude says. “Man, woo-man. Waiting.”
It dawns on me. “Oh, wedding. It’s a wedding party.”
“Oui. Waiting part-ee.”
As I am watching the quirky wedding festivities across the street, I feel a tug on my shirt. It’s Mr. Cham, who indicates that he wants me to come over to the food stand. For a moment, I think Mr. Cham has redeemed himself by ordering me lunch; as it turns out, he just wants me to pay for his lunch. I foot Cham’s lunch bill, secretly formulating ways to dump this creepy little freeloader as soon as I get to Siem Reap.
Since I’m already at the food stand, I decide to check out what kinds of cuisine they offer. The lone on-duty chef at this moment is a scowling 8-year-old girl who chops up a dead chicken with fearsome strokes from a butcher knife. When she finishes, she scoops up the gelatinous cubes of deceased fowl and dumps them onto a plate of rice.
Since the bird was never properly disemboweled, each chicken cube resembles a tidy anatomical cross-section of meat, bones, skin and viscera. In all my international culinary experience, I have never seen the likes of this. I half expect an elementary-school gifted-student coordinator to walk up and cheerily announce, “OK, now let’s see which one of you can put that chicken back together!”
I elect to skip lunch. My quest for a toilet leads me to a forlorn strip of cement behind the food stand, which provides a nice view of Route 6 twisting off into the distance. I wish I could say that the midday sun makes the dusty, brown road seem full of intrigue and possibility, but I’m on the wrong continent for that kind of notion.
In Cambodia, there are no hipster myths or soda advertisements to insinuate that the road is some kind of romantic-individualist icon. In the Cambodian outback, the road is little more than a long, dully dangerous, frequently uncomfortable way to get to Point B from Point A — a monotonous, head-banging waltz-with-misery that you endure in the hope that it will eventually stop, so you can begin to forget about it.
I feel another tug on my shirt. It’s Mr. T, who points back to the Nissan. “You get in!” he says.
I get in. But only because there are no other options out here.
Originally published on Salon.com, May 18, 1999