29 May 2010

Tofu Scramble

I took this photo ages ago and am only now getting around to posting it, but there you have it, folks: the weekend breakfast of the century! Developed in here in our Labs and described in a previous post. The serving suggestion here includes Cholula, a cup of tea and some slices of home made bread. Not shown: the Mighty Boosh.

Farrago, in Latin, means Mixed Cattle Fodder--

And that's a pretty appropriate name for this post--

First off, how about our last days in Cambodia?

We left your intrepid heroes in a small village named Kratie after a disastrously unsuccessful attempt at homestay; they were just settling in for a miserable night of vague illness and poor sleep. Craig had a horrible fever and could barely sleep because of a nasty headache. I had the expected digestive rumblings that strike so many down. We weren't looking forward to the next day's 7 hour bus ride to Phnom Penh.

At 4.30am the next morning, we are feeling our worst. It's been hours of darkness, we're aching and trying to keep ourselves from waking each other. Suddenly, a loudspeaker begins singing Buddhist prayer from a nearby temple. Over an hour into the chanting, Craig says, "I thought Buddhists were supposed to be compassionate."

I convince the guesthouse keeper's son to give me a ride to the market. I pick up some Malarine, because if Craig's symptoms get worse, it's got to be malaria. I get some Imodium, because a 7 hour bus ride ain't gonna work no other way.

After a sickly breakfast of baguette and apple juice, I wake Craig and help him get ready. We're both sick, but he's definitely worse off. He was nearly delirious the night before, but his fever broke. Now he just needs sleep, but the bus is here.

The bus ride is, of course, horrible. And not only because we were sick. Two pregnant women puked on the bus and had to get off mid-ride. An old woman across the aisle from us was eating fish and rice out of a plastic bag, and when she was done, she started chewing tobacco. She kept spitting the tobacco juice into a clear plastic bag and hanging it off the back of the seat in front of her. By the end of the ride, a nearly-full bag of blackish red goo was swinging precariously from the seat. People were blowing their noses and wiping their snot on the seats. We just barely managed to win our battle against nausea.

The bus driver decides to take a break for lunch, so we get off the bus for half an hour and loiter around a market where women are selling fried crickets and barely-dead spiders for snacks. All the fruit smells rancid, in that tropical fruit way, but finally, finally-- Phnom Penh.

Off the bus and we make our way to Paul's apartment, where Paul bestows the greatest gift upon us: understanding. We go out to an Indian place for dinner. Protein! Not just white rice and overcooked vegetables! Hooray! We went to the National Museum, a beautiful building, with a gorgeous courtyard and plenty of intriguing art.

We decided against seeing Phnom Penh's dark side. I didn't want to see Tuol Sleng. I didn't want to see the killing fields. I don't want to see instruments of torture and hell, human skulls and evidence of a broken country. Cambodia is just barely getting over its civil war. I wasn't up to it. Paul understood.

We spend our last few days with him and his housemates, enjoying his company like we always do. As a city, Phnom Penh is polluted, dirty, the smell of open sewers hangs over corner cafes and mud congeals on the footpaths. It doesn't seem to have much green space, apart from the Mekong, which flows right through the city. But the NGO district, where Paul lives, is nicer than most parts of town, and Paul lives on the top floor, with an enormous balcony. We went to some of Phnom Penh's loveliest restaurants and bars. He let us go to bed early. He conducted wonderful conversation at the Phnom Penh Foreign Correspondents Club.

Paul told us to imagine sitting here on this roof in 1979 and watching the Vietnamese take the city on this street below.

He's such a fine friend; I am truly grateful to have found him again. On our last night, we went to Romdeng, an NGO restaurant that helps street kids and brings the fancy to Cambodian food. Amok is a traditional Cambodian fish curry that everyone says you have to try while in Cambodia. But, of course, being primarily made of fish, I couldn't eat it. At Romdeng, they offer a vegetarian version, made of pumpkin. It was delicious and amazing, and we only wished all the food we'd eaten in Cambodia could have been so good.

On our last day, we had a nice breakfast with Paul and flew to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We had a day-long layover there before our flight to Sydney and figured any good tourist would at least see the Petronas Towers. Here's proof.

It was a rainy day, but we found a cafeteria-style restaurant that served us all manner of Malaysian and Thai food. And that night... we flew back to Sydney, ready for familiar streets again.

Let's see, what have we been up to lately? Other than moving, that is?

Back in April, we went with some Alfalfa folks to a farm in the near Sydney basin, at Catherine Fields. Field to Feast Farm is one of our localest suppliers of fruit and veg. Hapi (pronounced "Happy") is Tongan and uses traditional Tongan farming techniques. His farm is beautiful, especially when the sky behaves dramatically, as it often does in Sydney.

His greens is the best. He even grows the collards. He has beautiful plants, and we got to help planting some bok choy!

My hair was so long then, it was always getting in my eyes. A month later, it's even longer now, but it stays tucked away better now.

And two weeks ago, we visited Katoomba one last time. A day away from the city and a quiet bushwalk. It's been difficult thinking I may not get to see this stuff again... for a very long time. Beautiful little flowers. I wish I had a macro lens.

If you look close, there's a red rozelle in this tree. I really wish I had a zoom lens.

Autumn brings a spectacle of colour even to Sydney's gum-filled bush. It's just a really little spectacle.

I believe this is a yellow banksia tree-- but I heard a description of the Sandra Gordon Grevillea the other day that makes me think maybe this is a Grevillea, not a banksia after all...

And now, the finale-- some pictures of Craig's new place, yes? Let's start with the front; this is Craig's building from the street. Craig is waving from his kitchen window.

And here is the view he has from said kitchen window. Cheerful historic Glebe houses and tall palm trees. It's like a mash up of Florida and Victorian England.

A tiny kitchen.

But, luckily, there's a massive loungeroom, so a lot of Craig's kitchen stuff spills out into the lounge. In fact, they've decided to keep two fridges in the place, because neither fridge is really big enough for three people's food and Craig cooks a lot. I like how all the doors in his flat have little windows above them.

The loungeroom even has a little breakfast nook, which is super-useful as a clothes-drying room. See that bookshelf? That is almost entirely books we've collected since we've been here. Some might classify this as hoarding. I'm not interested in hearing from those people.

Craig's guitar lives by the boarded-up fireplace.

Here's the bathroom-- a little narrow. Don't put much weight on, Craig, or you won't be able to sit on the terlet!

The long corridor from the lounge at the front of the house, to Craig's room at the back.

And Craig's little room. It's big enough for him, but for both of us, it's a squeeze.

Craig stands with his diploma by the window...

When I go, Craig will probably trade in the giant bed for a single one, giving his room a bit more space. As you can see, Dinky still gets the best spot in the house.

And last but not least, the garden. The landlady lives on the ground floor and keeps plants, too, so she welcomed Craig's additions. Here's a view of the back--

And here are most of Craig's plants-- I couldn't find the Albury's Red in the picture, but I think it's just hiding under the telephone booth. Oh, yeah. They have a wicked old telephone booth in the back. The landlady keeps her gardening stuff in there, but it'll also serve as a perfect place for Craig to change into his Boy Wonder costume. Little Flopsley, pictured months ago in this post, is still battling on, bigger than he's ever been, but he's behind the phone booth, too.

Sadly, I sold my lovely orange bike today, to a member of the co-op. I think she'll take good care of dear Ellenoura, but because it's been raining all week, I never got a last ride to say goodbye. Luckily, Craig's planned a party for me tomorrow-- that'll keep my spirits up!

28 May 2010

The Hallowed Ground of Glebe

A piece of land, given by Governor Arthur Phillips, who had no right to give it, to Reverend Richard Johnson (Chaplain of the First Fleet) who similarly had no right to take it, but did anyway, in the name of the Anglican Church...

Sydney's been raining for almost 2 weeks straight, so our second big move in this seaside town took place under the auspices of a gray and wet sky. The Sydney Writer's Festival was also on this weekend. Other than a few minutes sitting on a wet wharf listening to PA speakers set up for the "overflow" at a John Ralston Saul event, I missed the whole thing. The bad weather didn't help, but really, honestly, I didn't go because we had so much moving to do.

Moving sucked, as it nearly always does, but since 6 members of a delightful and crazy brown family aren't visiting this week, the move was considerably less stressful than last time. And we had amazing, tireless, brilliant help. Vix and Ruby rescued us from cutting the mattress in half as we dragged it up a flight of stairs with two-- yes! two!-- 180 degree turns in it. And Sarah came to our old apartment the next day and helped us clean it. Our Sydney friends are beyond the pale, I tell you. You Atlanta ones have some competition for the title of "Most Wonderful Friends Craig and I Have Ever Had." That's right. It is a competition. Get to work!

Craig's new place is in Glebe, a beautiful historic part of town, cheerfully residential. We've mentioned Glebe before on the blog, too. A welcome respite from Botany Road's clattering traffic, it's so quiet and leafy here, we actually heard birds this morning! Craig's room is all set up now and he's got two lovely housemates, who seem, thus far at least, to be accommodating, kind, and generally classy ladies.

I've mentioned an event called "Penguin Plays Rough" before on this blog. And here's my post about the second time I went.

Well, last week, yours truly took one of her own humble little stories and read it for the PPR audience. I had to go first, because I was an "extra" wild card that they accepted at the last second, but going first was actually a blessing in disguise, because everyone was still excited and not yet too drunk. No one had cramped legs or an aching butt from sitting on the floor all night (but they would later...)

I got Craig to play some music for my story. You can listen to a live recording here. (A warning to Mom: this story is about you. You might not like it. But I wrote it because I love you.)

People really seemed to enjoy it; lots of laughing and clapping and fun-having. A nice feeling, that. And I got a mention on the blogosphere... well, someone other than me mentioned me on the blogosphere, anyway. Check that schnit out!

I finished my last day at Alfalfa on Monday, and even though I haven't exactly had a free moment since then, Sydney feels somewhat bittersweet and strange knowing my little desk there is no longer, well, mine. I'm feeling a bit anchorless.

Also, I'll be putting together my last episode of Final Draft tomorrow, and my heart's been creaking louder than usual these days. I'm definitely not ready to be finished with the radio show; I don't know how to leave something I'm so honoured to be a part of. In fact, I'm sort of just refusing to leave it alone-- I've already got two more ideas under production.

One of which is an interview with John Boswell, the creator of Symphony of Science.com. Have you guys seen these things? They are beautiful, they make me cry, and I can't wait to talk with him.

Have any questions you want me to ask him? I'm thinking along the lines of "What makes you so magical?" and "Why are you so wonderful?"

With that, I'm signing off for today-- another bit coming tomorrow!

24 May 2010

Baby baby baby, (I've) changed (my) address (again)...

What with Nija's impending departure from this not-yet-fatal shore, we had to vacate our apartment in favour of new digs, semi-permanent for me and exceedingly temporary for Nija. So I/we have moved north and west, toward the water, to Glebe. If there's a lovelier part of Sydney, I either don't know about it or can't afford to live in it.

So if you're planning to drop in anytime soon, tell the cab driver to take you to Glebe, no longer to Alexandria. More news and pictures to come when we recover from the move.

08 May 2010

Smart Noshery Makes You Slobber.

Click the title of this post-- you won't be sorry! Ok, now for the real post--

Cambodia Overland

On our last day in Siem Reap, we were lukewarm on carvings and temples and cut wild trees that once grew over broken stones. We felt we'd seen it, and without being scholars on the topic, there was little more we could really gain from seeing another seven-headed naga, another elephant, another demon, another churned sea of milk, another apsara, another Buddha. The Angkor complex is fascinating in its sprawling, brokedown way, but it's confusing, too. It's a heritage site, so you expect it to be clean. You expect the government and international agencies to create jobs for people, and maintenance is one of those good never-gonna-end sort of jobs. But in our days at Angkor, we saw people sweeping leaves out of the forest. What is going on? Surely, that is a never-ending job that nature manages well enough? We were starting to ask weird, unanswerable questions, the kind of questions that make people move to Cambodia forever. Maybe the Cambodian conception of beautiful nature is about tidiness, like bonsai trees? Why are they burning all that sugarcane? Why is there a working rice paddy in the middle of two Angkor temples?

And we'd spent enough time in Siem Reap, too, enjoying the bizarre cafes and people-watching. People will strap anything to the back of a motorcycle in this town. The creativity is astounding. Can you strap nine chickens to the back of a scooter and ride it without falling? We had also enjoyed a lovely thing (that we would truly miss in the coming days)-- Siem Reap's generally good food. It's filled with surprising variety-- there's even a Mexican restaurant. And because Cambodia was colonised by the French, you can get a delicious crispy fresh-baked baguette anywhere.

We had not yet seen the water; yes, we had seen the straight little river that splits Siem Reap neatly, but we had not seen the big water.

Tonle Sap, which is a giant lake that feeds the Mekong river during the dry season, and then changes its flow to feed the lake during the wet season, is the heart of Cambodia. So we got on a tour boat and rode out past floating villages to a larger, moored boat, where we ate dinner and watched the sunset.

There were drawbacks. We were first herded to an alligator farm/eel farm/giftshop on a river feeding into Tonle Sap. The veg-friendly dinner was a bowl of chips and overcooked vegetables with rice. No soy sauce. No chilli. Overall, it was probably a bit too expensive.

But it was brilliant, as well.

The floating villages are Vietnamese refugee communities; during the Vietnam war, thousands of Vietnamese people fled, anywhere they could. Fleeing one war-torn place for a war-ravaged neighbour seemed incongruous to me, possibly ironic, but the tour guide told us, "They had to leave. Go anywhere." Even Cambodia, I guess.

Though Cambodians love fish and seafood, and more than anything, tuk tray, or fish sauce, Cambodians don't tend to live on water. Just on land near it. But the Vietnamese refugees are true boat people. The Cambodian government gave them refugee status, but it couldn't give them land, since so many Cambodian citizens are peasants without land, as well. And rent on land is too expensive for they refugees. So they live, they work, they cook, they sleep, they learn, they pray, and they continue, survive, in boats.

Floating school, floating church, we even saw a floating mosque.

Check out the solar panels--

We saw three or four little kids paddling around in little metal or plastic tubs; they were all going in different directions, and I asked, "Where are they trying to go? What are they doing?," because if I'm in a boat, I'm trying to get somewhere. And the guide said, "They're just playing."

Because the boats are homes, which means the lake is the street, the front yard, the playground. But the lake is also the toilet. I probably shouldn't take this analogy too far. You never know where we might end up.

I have never seen kids so comfortable with so much water. I myself can't swim more than about 3 feet. I don't even like being wet, honestly. But these kids...when their tubs starting taking on water, when their tubs started sinking, they calmly cupped the water out with their hands.

A man steered his little jalopy-like motorboat next to our boat, and his little toddler hopped across, to our boat, holding ice-cold beers for sale, because they knew our tour guide only had warm Angkor-label beer. I will say this now: I will never jump from one moving boat to another, risk falling into the largest freshwater lake in SE Asia, unless my life depends on it, in which case-- I will not be bringing you any ice-cold beers, my friend. I will not.

A kite flying over Tonle Sap.

And a beautiful sunset over the lake.

The real problem I had with this trip was that it was like touring through poverty. The tour boat goes through the floating village, through these people's front yards, their streets, and we saw their homes, their schools, their bathrooms, but they most likely don't see any of our money. Craig said almost the whole visit to Cambodia was "vacationing in someone else's misery."

The next morning, we got up early and took a bus to Kamphong Cham on our way to Kratie. From Kratie, we were going on an eco-tourism sort of homestay organised by the Cambodian Rural Development Team. We were supposed to meet them at their offices, and we'd stay there overnight.

The bus took hours, and though no long bus journey over land is very nice, it was only reasonably bad. I particularly enjoyed the Cambodian music videos. There was a love ballads video and a wedding songs video; I realized eventually that almost every video featured one guy-- must be the Khmer Shah Rukh Khan!! Exactly the kind of cultural capital/camp I love. Craig, on the other hand, found the videos schlocky and shmaltzy and various other yiddish words that mean annoying and boring and not worth watching. The bus driver honked at everything that was anywhere near the bus (other cars, pedestrians, birds, houses, piles of grass...), so sleep was impossible and dozing was punctuated by horn blasts. But then the driver hit a cow-- don't worry, it got back up and ran away-- but maybe you should worry, because we really don't know if it was ok after that...

Once we got to Kampong Cham, we had another 1.5 hour trip to Kratie, which no buses service, so we had to take a share-taxi. OMG. This is a truly horrible way to travel. Six people shoved into a four-seater; Craig and I were both in the passenger seat. The driver took us a mile away from the bus station and stopped. He wouldn't drive any more unless we paid him extra. We asked why and he said he usually fits two extra people into his car, so we should pay him for the extra fares. This is a scam. He's paid by the bus company to take us to Kratie; it was included in our ticket. The bus company gave him the people they had, and he'd driven us away from the station because he'd probably get in trouble if the bus company knew about this sort of fleecing. Still, we couldn't imagine 8 people fitting into this tiny car, and didn't really want to try it out. Eventually we negotiated down to $1.25 extra per person, and we were on our terrifying way.

No seatbelts, and the driver honked at everything on the road, flying unbelievably fast on dirt roads, no air conditioning on a tropical dry-season day. The countryside of Cambodia is so dusty, even the trees look orange because they're covered in it. Because Craig and I were sitting up front, we could see every horrifying swerve the driver made, every poor skinny thing he almost hit.

We finally got to Kratie, harrowed and carsick and aching. Our hips hurt where each others' bones were poking us through the ride. I had a mildly pinched nerve from sitting with my spine so contorted. We were not in great shape. The taxi driver tried to drop us off at a guesthouse where he would get kickbacks for every person who stayed there, but we left on foot for CRDT.

Kratie is rural, seriously, weirdly rural. It's a small town in the middle of farmland, so skinny ponies walk down the road and cows lay down in front of the bank. Chickens... everywhere.

At the CRDT office, they told us that, in the morning, we would take a taxi and a boat to a small village (Koh Pdao), where an English-speaking guide would show us all the CRDT projects, like aquaculture (teaching people to farm small quantities of their own fish, so they don't have to net the Mekong and harm its ecosystem), or a biodigester (a giant composter that collects methane from animal manure, so people can burn methane for cooking instead of sugarcane and trash that pollute. They can also burn the methane for light). We would be staying in someone's home, and they'd fix food for us. Vegetarian food had been organized.

Sounds great, we said.

And they said we could help with the gardening or digging a well if we wanted. Or we could not help and just laze around and ride bikes around if we wanted.

We'd rather do something, we said.

They took us to a guesthouse and told us to get a room there for the night.

And here our troubles began. In my itinerary, the organiser (Tola) told us we would stay at the offices for the night. But Tola is nowhere to be found. And guesthouses are cheap in Cambodia, so we decide to just stay there.

The next morning, we take another share taxi and eventually find the boat that is supposed to take us to the village. The boat ride up the Mekong is beautiful and a little social, as well.

Look how hopeful Craig is, at the start of the day.

The river is the only source of communication and connection for all the little villages along it; the boat stopped to deliver giant boxes of instant noodles and jerrycans of gasoline. Women and children got on the boat to ride to other villages. A little Cambodian girl took a shine to Craig (as usual!) and sat next to him for the whole ride. An interesting note: it seems the height of fashion in Cambodian villages is pajama pants with high heels, along with large fashion jewelry and t-shirts. And I'm talking serious pajama pants. Pale yellow fleecy fabric with little bears sleeping on clouds sort of pajamas. Fascinating stuff.

The journey to the village from Kratie had taken about 2.5 hours.
"We have to tell the guide that we need to be in Kratie at 9am tomorrow morning, to catch our bus to Phnom Penh," I told Craig.
"So the boat would need to leave here at, like, 6.30am," he said. "Just to be safe."

We get off the boat. There is no one there to tell us what to do.

We walk around and eventually find a house on stilts... there is nothing telling us what to do, or whose house we're supposed to be staying in.

We eventually just climb the stairs into this house, figuring if we're in the wrong place, they'll tell us.

A Khmer woman is making up two beds. She smiles at us, but can't speak any English. We can't speak any Khmer, of course, because we're... um... tourists. We had little English-Khmer phrase cards that were supposed to help: we pointed to "Is that my bed?" and she nodded. There was no guide. We asked if anyone spoke any English, but no. Lunch was on the way, but we were worried. How we would get to see anything, much less get back to Kratie on time, if we didn't have a guide?

Lunch came out: instant noodles, omelette, fish rolls, and fish on sticks.

I asked to speak to Tola. Someone had a cellphone and they called him. He apologized for all the fish; he'd forgotten to tell them we were vegetarian. He told me the English-speaking guide wasn't coming, but a Khmer-speaking one was. I wasn't sure how this was going to work, but I thought we might as well eat and figure it out as we went along.

An old guy came along and said, "Hello!" Relief! We said hello! and asked if he was a guide. "No, I am not," he said stiffly. "What is your nationality?" he asked. "Um...we're from Australia, or America," we said. "I would like to know about your culture," he said.

He took our English phrase cards and read each English phrase out slowly to us, looking up at us for approval after each question. "Where is the bathroom?" "When will dinner be served?"

Uh-oh. This guy just wants to practice his English. Which is fine, but we really didn't know what was going on-- where were the CRDT people? He agreed to take us to the office on a scooter.

The "office" was an empty shed and a wooden platform with a tarped roof. No one in sight. Finally a young man came by. "Hello!" he said. We said hello! and asked if he was a guide. "No, I am not," he said stiffly. "What is your nationality?" he asked.

Oh, dear.

Turns out his brother is the CRDT guide, but his brother had gone somewhere else, and so CRDT had asked him to come instead. He lives in this village and teaches in another. He told us that it was a public holiday, this day, and that was why no one was here.

Why had they booked us for a homestay on this day?

He didn't know Tola, or anything about CRDT. He couldn't show us the development projects. So, we went back to our homestay house, and talked with him for awhile, still awaiting the arrival of the Khmer-speaking guide.

"I would like to know where you have travelled?" he said.

We told him we were from America, but that we lived in Australia. That we had a friend in Phnom Penh, so we thought we'd see Cambodia, and we'd just got here from Thailand.

"I think you are very lucky to see so many things," he said.

We're jerks. He told us he had never even seen Angkor Wat; he wants to see a lot of places, but he doesn't think he'll have the money. I couldn't keep up the faltering, small-talky conversation. He asked rehearsed questions and we tried to keep the immense privilege and wealth out of our answers. The stress and the heat wore me thin, and then out.

I fell asleep for an hour, and then Craig woke me up to say we were going to try to bicycle to the next village to see if maybe some CRDT people were there. While I was asleep, he watched some of the villagers stack speakers onto an oxcart-- apparently there was a party in the next town over that night.

Where is the Khmer guide? He never showed. The teacher tells us the next village is about 2km away.

We borrow some bicycles. Riding over unpaved, dusty paths strewn with grass and sugarcane, I was nervous. Then we got to a bridge. Loose planks ill-fitted over long strips of wood. Missing planks, green river below. I was terrified. I rode slow, scared. I barely breathed.

"Could you ride a little faster, please, because the village is 5 km away?" the teacher said.

I stopped riding. Craig stopped short behind me. The teacher stopped.

"This is not going to work. We need to go back. Right now," I said. We clearly weren't going to learn anything about CRDT, we certainly weren't going to help dig a damn well, and we weren't going to make it back to Kratie on time in the morning.

I didn't want to sit in someone's house, not even be able to talk to them through a translator or guide or anything, have them cook me dinner and then go to sleep in their house, having learned nothing about the development projects they're working on to make their lives better and more sustainable.

How crazy is it to make rural development projects in villages that house about 40 people more sustainable, when the cities are filled with exhaust? Really? I mean, really?? It's like sweeping leaves out of the forest.

So, we called Tola and got a boat back to Kratie. The schoolteacher rode on the boat back with us; he really didn't understand why we were leaving. We told him we weren't going to take our money back-- we still wanted the family to have the money... the only thing we had to offer, really. We told him we were sorry.

This is our return boat... most of the little boats in Cambodia are a bit leaky. People keep plastic dishes around to help shovel the water out. Click on this picture to see an excellent motion shot--

The taxi back was mercifully ours alone, and we listened to Cambodian versions of American rap songs all the way to Kratie. **I want to make up right now na na, Wish we never broke up right now na na, We need to link up right now na na.**

We went back to the same guesthouse, trying to prep ourselves for the 7-hour busride to Phnom Penh the next day... and then we both got sick. We settled in for a rough night.

More to come soon...