26 August 2010

We are moving!

Use the new address: http://withoutstringstied.wordpress.com/

All posts will be imported to the new site so you can still read back. The transition will take a couple of months as I familiarise myself with WordPress and design the site for my liking. Any and all feedback are welcome.

10 August 2010

Khmer Rouge: Contributing to Cambodia tourism

All the news about the Khmer Rouge trials have brought my impression of physical remnants of their sights back to the surface.

Phnom Penh boasts of few attractions. Most people who choose to pass through instead of flying directly to Siem Reap to the Angkor ruins do so because of the Khmer Rouge sites. In my many trips back to PP for business, I constantly get bombarded  by tuktuk drivers trying to solicit a more than a fare by being a dedicated driver for a whole day, offering to take me to see the Killing Fields or the Tuol Sleng prison. What a sad reflection it is on your home when the biggest bragging points are remnants of massacre and human cruelty.

The Killing Fields had sunken pits where bodies have been dug out (if you can call it excavated). As I walked, I noticed rags lying about. Indignation bubbled up as I wondered what kind of people would be careless enough to litter such an awful place that remains the resting ground for many victims. It wasn't until halfway through that it finally occurred to me that those rags were really clothing, from the victims, still lying around.

Tuol Sleng looked like it was abandoned in a rush, then left to rot in the humid climate. In the courtyard, a sign titled "The Security of Regulation" read:
1. You must answer accordingly to my question. Don’t turn them away.
2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.
3. Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
8. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.
9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many many lashes of electric wire.
10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.
The individual units reeked of some stale combination of rotting wood, mold, something akin to human waste. I swear, if you look closely enough, you'd see the faded brown blood stains around. The barb wire around the front of the building snuffed out any perception that this building was ever a school, a very institution that produced the educated people the Khmer Rouge targeted. I could barely keep the bile down as I walked around. The incongruity of crowd of tuktuk drivers, hawkers, vendors of sorts targeting tourists, just outside the compound entrance, waiting to pounce on the visitors as they leave the prison, seems to be lost on the locals.

I have never been to any of the World War II concentration camps in Europe... or any World War II memorial site other than Pearl Harbor, for that matter. I did find the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC to be one of the most haunting and resonating museums I have ever been to. But, this by far remains the most chilling and unnerving sites dubbed as an "attraction."

09 August 2010

Seriously? How can you not know a peach?

A couple of colleagues were off to Beijing this month and I told them to definitely try the white peaches. They are in season and if my recollection is worth its salt, the peaches are some of the best I've ever had.

The guys emailed me.. "We can't find them anywhere."
Then followed by an accusatory  "You should have said they were pink, not white!"

What? How can you not know what a white peach looks like? They are available in American supermarkets every summer. Please don't tell me if I told you to buy a white peach, you wouldn't know what I'm talking about??? Have they just pulled off a very guy behaviour of not knowing their foods?

Apparently they searched all over without results because they were just looking for something that's just white. It's been a while since I've been to Beijing, but I recall not being able to walk anywhere without tripping over a stall of peaches. And given that the white peach is shaped like a peach, couldn't they just have started with a "I wonder if this is it?"??

So, folks, take a good look and remember this!

07 August 2010

Sinai- I'd go back in a heartbeat

Following up with my quick blurb about hiking up Mount Katherine, I want to specifically mention Sinai. The peninsula is quite different from the rest of Egypt. Unlike the Nile-based culture, Sinai is home to the Bedouins, and offers completely different geology and climate. I felt silly bringing long sleeves until I put them all on once I got to Sinai. The cool winds brought temperatures down to the 60s at night... in summer.

Saint Katherine's protectorate is a small village build up around the economy of tourists coming to climb Mount Sinai. Despite the famous biblical landmark, tourism hasn't made St. Katherine into a bustling place. Most tourists arrive in the evening, climb up over night, watch the sunrise, come down to visit the St. Catherine monastery, then hop back on the bus to be back on the beach by lunch. It was so common that locals welcomed the few travelers who stay longer with open arms and a health dollop of  warmth.

I went without much of an idea where to stay. I braced myself for a camp-style stay, packing accordingly. I was, instead, given a heavy pitch to stay at the newly opened guesthouse. I didn't let on the fact that the minute they said the room with its private bathroom is available that I was already sold. I'm fine with sleeping in sleeping bags or under the star. But I'm spoilt to the point that I now will always prefer clean plumbing options.

Since I had a spare afternoon before my hike, the local sheik's son took me around the area as he made his neighborly drop-in route. He was well-known and well-acquainted. If someone wasn't related to him, he was a good friend. I found myself bundled into the same welcomes my guide received, invited to sit down in each of the camps for a cup of tea and some fresh local apricots.

That recognition came to use the following day on our return from the hike up Mount Katherine. We passed the same camp and family orchard on our way back to the protectorate. The owner, recognising me, waved us over for tea. Exhausted and dehydrated, I was happy to accept. He, it turns out, was having a family reunion. His sons and grandsons from town were at the camp, playing games and chatting. Despite the women sitting back away from the center where the males crowded, the matriarch came forward to shake my hand. One of the sons brought me into the middle of the male circle, drawing me into conversation with his surprising fluent English.

The family lamented my short stay, mentioning the next time I come back to Sinai, I should stay a week. The local families open up their homes to visitors who want to experience the Bedouin lifestyle. The lifestyle I found so appealing in its open friendliness. While they maintain a very conservative culture with distinct dominance of male roles, they treated me, a long female, with nothing but courtesy and graciousness.

02 August 2010

Bangkok Belly

Watching a business traveler go down literally with food poisoning, I belatedly realised I never gave the region's biggest health danger proper note in this blog. As a friend said it best, "Food poisoning is a fact of life here. It's not a matter of if. It's a matter of when." Many locals mistaken the cause as being the extreme spice put in the local dishes. I didn't have the heart to correct them in saying it's poor food management, not extreme spice that is the guilty culprit.

The real danger is sanitation. From how fresh the food is to the handling throughout its life until it ended up in you hands. Americans saran wrap everything. Sealed plastic is the assurance we have come to take as a tamper-evident or a freshness seal.

Back to Thailand. More recently, food providers- cart vendors, restaurants, supermarkets- now have to go through Department of Health regulations in handling of food. It's a start. Food handlers, however, are not yet under the same strict regulations. Scary thought, isn't it? Even when and where is chicken is killed is unknown. Walk through a wet market, you can find live chicken, dead unfeathered chicken carcass, and grilled chicken-on-a-stick sitting right on the same stall.

My first day to work upon arrival in Bangkok, the driver and I were following a delivery truck. An open flatbed pick up with large blocks of ice stacked. Ice delivery. The ice weren't covered. The delivery men wore gloves to handle the cubes as  they picked out the quantity and dropped it off at the stores. Just imagine your raw chicken sitting on that melting  block during the hot 100 degree day until you stopped by for dinner.

Oh yeah. How long as the food been sitting out, waiting for the people to consume? Those food carts. Only the drink vendors have coolers. Ice cream vendors are few and far between. The climate certainly increases their demand. But the resources for keeping the dessert, well, frozen, is non-existent as carts aren't wired up for electricity. So how about the fish, eh? Before they put it on the grill. They certainly don't keep it on the charcoal grill the whole time otherwise it would be just a large piece of black soot.

Me, personally, I worry more about raw lettuce. Even in five star restaurants. Water is not necessarily potable and the lettuce leaf is just so hard to clean and dry. Two years and counting, I still haven't eaten a lettuce salad in Thailand. Most people I know who have encountered food poisoning ate lettuce.

The reality is with so many gaps in the food preparation chain and process, you never know when or what will hit you. And sometimes it is instantaneous. Sometimes it take a few days to catch up. For the most part, good sense and a healthy dose of caution minimises (but not excludes) one's chance of getting Bangkok Belly. If all else fails, huge bottles of water, cipro, and a couple days in bed with close access to the toilet. What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger, albeit painfully.