The Nature of Hospitality

“Cambodians are different. They are not hospitable,” Chu, a surveyor from Shanghai who was working in the northeastern Cambodian province of Ratanakiri, told me this when I stepped off my bicycle for a break. Later, as I cycled on the desolate red dirt road between Kratie and Banlung this thought stuck with me, bouncing around in my head like tennis shoes in a washing machine. I agreed with him and pined for the hearty hospitality I had been shown while hitchhiking in eastern Europe and Turkey. I rode this train of thought as I rode my bicycle, slowly and ponderously. I was tired and lonely, the road was unmarked, there were no towns or other landmarks to speak of, and my map was proving inaccurate. Hotels awaited me in Banlung, but I had another full day of cycling until I would reach them. Consequently I didn't know where I would sleep that night.

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How did I get here? On this desolate road in the buttcrack middle-of-nowhere Cambodia, covered in red dirt, which seemed to permeate my pores and settle into every exposed crinkle in my skin. As I rode along, I imagined myself talking to someone who was thinking of cycling in Southeast Asia. What would I tell him or her? “Don't do it.” Yeah, that'd be the first thing. I had only been on the road for six days, but those were five miserable days. It rained constantly the first two days, despite this being the dry season, and even my long pants and wool sweater were not enough to keep me warm. Then after the rain, the shitty roads began. Dirt had turned to mud, a thick red mud which made traction impossible and pushing my bicycle a necessity at times. Soon after, I began to miss the mud as it was replaced by powder-light dust which came at me like a tidal wave of red dirt every time a motorbike, car, or truck passed me. The soreness abated quickly but still lingered on, especially in my ass, crotch, and lower back. But the worst of all was the loneliness. For six days I had spoken nary a word of English beyond “hello”. Instead I spent ten hours a day on my bicycle, my thoughts on constant repeat. Did I spend the time pondering my plans, my aspirations, my goals? Not at all. Something about the repetitive motion of the bicycle, the repetitive scenery, the physical exertion seemed to make any sort of philosophical pondering impossible. Instead I spent the time decrying my state and setting tiny goals for myself to keep me on the bike and cycling as much as possible. So even for mundane activities like checking the map, getting a drink of water, putting on my gloves, and applying sunscreen, I would make myself wait as long as I possibly could just to eke out every extra kilometer.

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The entire day I passed by the same dusty landscape—spindly trees and tall grasses which were as coated in powdery dirt as I. Around 5:30 p.m. the sky started to darken and I knew I had about a half hour of good light left so I began to search for a house I could ask to sleep in. I stopped at the first house I saw and bought a bottle of water. The whole family was huddled on the ground using large metal soup spoons to scoop up and reserve some oil which had spilled on the packed-dirt ground. I isolated the matron of the family and as I paid for my water I made a sleeping pose, then shrugged my shoulders in a cartoonishly exaggerated questioning pose. She stared at me for a bit, then nodded vaguely. I smiled and said, “Akuhn.” I didn't know the logistics of my sleeping arrangement, but she had agreed, so at least I would not be sleeping on the side of the road that night.

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I was coated in an opaque layer of red dirt and my junk was feeling a bit itchy. I guess the dried urine combined with tight bike shorts and long hours pressed to the bicycle seat was not agreeing with me. I asked where the bong khon was, only to find that they didn't have one. But I saw the eldest daughter splashing in some water in a small basin out back, so when she was finished I grabbed a half-filled water bottle and a change of clothes and squatted on the flat rock which acted as both kitchen sink and shower. They didn't have access to running water, so I used the drinking water left in my bottle to quickly rinse the most crucial areas.

I sat at a table at the front of the house with my journal and wrote as the light faded around me. There were three children in the family—two teenagers and a young girl. The youngest was inquisitive and came to peek over my shoulder as I wrote. I showed her the half-filled page, then put my journal down and began to draw in the fine dirt around us. First I drew simple shapes—a star, a heart—then started writing basic English words, pronouncing them slowly as I did. “Hello. OK. Bye.”

Just as it became too dark to write, around 6:30 p.m., the father pulled up to the house on the family's one motorbike. Almost immediately I heard the chugging of an engine turning over and then the constant whirring of a generator. The lights came on and the two teenagers, clearly well versed in this routine, turned on the television and stereo and popped a disc into each. As the mother prepared dinner, the remaining members of the family, as well as a few neighborhood children, gathered around the television. I can only imagine the name of the disc was Extreme Bloodlust 3 or something of the sort, as the “movie” consisted entirely of the bloodiest scenes from all the Rambo movies, spliced together with nothing so distracting as dialogue or exposition between them. Not that we would have been able to hear any dialogue. Instead, a mix of Khmer and American dance music blared over the speakers, including my favorite Khmer rap tune called, as far as I can tell, “Mien Loy,” which translate to have money though is used in this sense to mean payday. The lyrics, as they were earlier translated to me, are something to the effect of “I've got money, so I'm going to ride on my motorbike and buy some beef.” I appreciated the prosaic, mundane lyrics—a far cry from the seeming-hyperbole of their American rap counterparts. I tried to continue writing in my journal under one of the three light bulbs hanging from the bare ceiling, but the gruesome scenes on the television entranced me. As I watched Sylvester Stalone slash and shoot everyone around him, an American hip hop song I had never heard came on the stereo. The lyrics were pure poetry: “Don't want no short dick man. Don't want no short dick man. Eeny weeny teeny weeny shriveled little short dick man.” I smiled as I looked around at the four or five young children gathered around the television.

When the matron of the house came out with dinner—a big covered bowl of white rice and a smaller bowl of meat and vegetable stew—the neighborhood children left and the family relocated, their necks craned so they could still watch the television, to the dining table. The mother offered me a bowl, but I declined, saying, “At nyam satch. I don't eat meat. Nyam bai. Eat rice.” This simple phrase accounted for about half of all the Khmer I knew, and didn't entirely get my point across, as the phrase nyam bai, though literally meaning eat rice, is more commonly used to refer to eating in general—such is the importance of rice in Cambodian culture. But after a little gesturing she handed me a bowl of hot white rice and I topped it with soy sauce. I cleaned my bowl quickly but felt far from satiated.

So it was with a half-empty stomach that I prepared for sleep. It was about 7:30 p.m. and the family was closing up their house for the night. The mother brought out a tiny pillow, placed it on the table I had eaten dinner on, then joined her husband and three children on a wooden platform no larger than a full-size bed. The platform was covered in a flat, primary-colored plastic woven mat and sheltered by a light blue, rectangular mosquito net. The family huddled under one blanket and shut off the light. I contemplated my makeshift bed. Just thirty minutes prior I had eaten my bowl of rice on this table. Despite the early hour, I was tired, so I put on my warmest clothing—a pair of cotton pants, short sleeved t-shirt, and a wool sweater—and climbed up on the table.

I slept fitfully, turning from side to side whenever my hips became bruised, laying on my back until my tailbone ached. Around 2:00 a.m. my warmest clothes were no longer warm enough. I slept nonetheless.

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The mother arose and began making rice around 5:00 a.m. and when I got up at 5:30 a.m., the kids were still sleeping. I shuffled around a bit awkwardly as I tried to say my goodbyes. I fumbled with my purse, but the mother would not accept any money. Instead she smiled quietly and gracefully as I tried to communicate my gratitude by pressing her hand and saying, “Akuhn,” over and over. I got on my bicycle and waved an enthusiastic goodbye. The air was soft and cool and the sun cast long orange shadows on the red dirt ground.

As I cycled on the silent road, reflecting on my night, I felt a familiar pang of guilt. The family had opened their home to me and allowed me into their lives. All I had left them with were some scribblings in the dirt, a few smiles, and hopefully a story to tell.


In One Word: How to Spot a Pervert

It is amazing how much can be communicated through the subtleties of a language. To explain this, I'm going to need to delve a little bit into the structure of Turkish. Turkish has separate words for singular you (sen) and plural you (siz), but the plural you can also be used as a sign of respect and formality when speaking to one person. So when meeting someone for the first time, and especially when speaking to an elder, it is customary and natural to use the formal, plural you.

Now I have a tendency to waver back and forth between the yous, but when I'm hitchhiking I really try to address my driver with the formal “siz”. It's simply the polite thing to do. And what a difference that one little word can make.


I walked with my little pack from the center of Kas to the main highway, the coastal road that runs from Antalya to Fethiye, crossed the road to head west toward Fethiye, placed my pack a few paces in front of me, and stuck out my thumb. Though it was a hot, sunny day, I was wearing my thick jeans. This was the advice of the Turkish father I stayed with in Kas, who vetoed my only other pair of pants as being too thin and therefore attracting too much negative attention.

Not much traffic today, I thought after one car passed me by. Despite the beautiful weather, winter is the low season in this part of Turkey. But the next car to turn onto the highway pulled over to the shoulder to pick me up. In a split second, I took in the details. Solitary young male. License plate started with 34, indicating the driver was from Istanbul. The car was sleek and black. Nice, but not flashy. I had a decent feeling about this, but it all depended on the driver. Even if he was harmless (no groping), there was still a chance he might make me uncomfortable (ask too personal questions, want me to be his girlfriend).

“Nereye gidiyorsunuz? Where are you going?” I asked him, using the formal ending to the verb.

“Mugla,” he replied. He could take me all the way to my destination: a few kilometers west of Fethiye. It remained to be seen whether this was lucky or not.

He spoke no English, so we conversed in Turkish. I began to get a bit weary when he asked me about traveling alone and spoke of his loneliness while traveling alone on business. Experience had taught me that the next topic of conversation would often be my marital status, followed closely by a request to exchange phone numbers and get to know each other better. But though we talked freely about work and travel and hobbies, he never veered into inappropriate territory; in fact, I suddenly noticed that even after 50 kilometers together, he was still using the formal you when he addressed me, asking “Isminiz ne? What is your name?” and Kac yasindayiz? How old are you?”

Once I realized this, I relaxed completely and it struck me that though I had sometimes had problems with drivers who dropped the formal “siz” in favor if the informal “sen”, I had never had problems with drivers who maintained polite formality of the plural you.

And true to form, he drove me kilometers out of his way to drop me at the very doorstep of my destination, the Pastoral Vadi Eco Farm in Yaniklar, Turkey, where a television crew awaited and filmed my arrival. But my appearance and interview (conducted and answered entirely in Turkish!) on national television is a subject for another post.


Oh Battambang!

Listening to this song transports me immediately back to Cambodia, back to Battambang.

I had been traveling through the country for a few weeks before I overheard this song and realized he was singing about Battambang, about a city which was becoming increasingly dear to me. (I use the word "city" in only the loosest of terms; Battambang feels more like a low, sprawling town.) Months later, this same song was still being played in every restaurant, every bus, every store I went into but I wasn't tired of it. Not at all. In fact my housemates and I often spent mornings listening to "Oh Battambang" on repeat and at least two of my friends translated the song, using it to help them brush up on their Khmer. And it didn't stop there.

I remember going to a pizza restaurant with a group of Peace Corps volunteers and requesting "Oh Battambang" be played over the speakers. The waiter was happy to comply, and soon, those of us who knew the song were singing along as loudly as we could and teaching it to the rest of the group.

When we heard the music video for the song had been shot in Phnom Penh, we were outraged and became inspired to shoot a video for the song based in Battambang, showcasing the landmarks of the city--Aek Phnom, Phnom Sampeau, Ta dambang statue, the bamboo train, and of course, the Stung Sanker! Unfortunately, as with many of our inspired ideas (making a song out of gecko chirps, sweding Double Indemnity, building a swimming pool in the yard) this one barely made it off the ground.

Here's a link to the official music video. You can see that the only shots of Battambang are actually on green screen. For shame!


When Nature Calls

Can you see our cave? Look for the three black openings.

We were both couchsurfers and had considered trying to couchsurf on our hitchhiking tour of Turkey. But J had a tent and a sleeping bag with him and we found it more convenient and more conducive to cuddling to sleep in his one-person tent and share his sleeping bag. On the trip so far we'd used it only once or twice. We'd also slept on the sandy beach in Patara, at a friend's villa in Bodrum, under a beachside gazebo in Kas, and on the side of a pine-strewn hill near the Syrian border (where it was too hot for the tent). From the moment we entered the Kapadokya region we were in agreement. We would spend the night in one of the caves carved into the soft volcanic rock that makes the region so famous and gives it its otherworldly landscape.

So, in our biggest splurge of the trip, we rented a motorbike for twenty-four hours and toured the region. We saw thousand-year-old churches carved into rocky cliffs, Flintstones-style apartment complexes honeycombed in the rocks, phallic formations carved by centuries of water flow. All the while, we scanned the rocks, searching for a nice little cave we could sleep in. We wanted one that was isolated and difficult to climb into. No nighttime visitors please. We also needed a place to park the motorbike overnight.

When we followed a gravel road up an incline and looked out over a valley filled with rocks shaped like gnomes' hats we finally saw a seemingly suitable cave. It appeared as a dark spot on the golden cliff, but was only visible from a few turns in the road. We parked the motorbike, grabbed our packs, and headed down into the rocky valley to investigate. The cave was two small valleys over, so we needed to scramble down sandy and rocky soil before we could begin climbing up. Even approaching the cave was difficult, far more difficult than it had appeared from the road. I tentatively tried out a few routes before committing to one. The shadows were elongating, so when J saw that I was making headway, he scrambled back up to the road to repark the motorbike so it was as out of sight as possible. He soon followed me down to where I stood, peering up at a nearly sheer cliff face. We peered up together. Even without the packs the climb would have been tough. We climbed slowly. The rock face was soft and sandy, making traction difficult to come by. For every burst upwards, I slid back a few feet as well. The last stretch, just shy of the cave's opening, was the steepest. So I left my pack with J and scraped in, then he handed me our stuff while he climbed up himself. By now, the light was rapidly fading and we both realized we had chosen our sleeping place for the night sight unseen. Luckily, the inside of the cave was hospitable. It was small, though, barely large enough for us to stretch out in. There was evidence inside of recent occupation—by birds—but we felt quite confident, given the difficult climb to reach the cave, that no one would disturb us that night. The rented motorbike was another matter. I could only hope that no one would disturb it.

We ate our dinner—a typical (for us) melange of fresh fruit (peaches, grapes, melon), black olives, a loaf of Turkish white bread, and white sugar-coated chickpeas. Then we arranged our bed for the night, first laying down J's blue crinkled tarp then his sleeping bag. The thought that we would sleep on it instead of under it seemed absurdly hopeful. Though it was August and the air crackled with heat during the day, Kapadokya had cold, desert-like nights. In preparation for such a night, we each layered as much as possible. Since I had hardly any clothes in my small pack, this meant that we split J's warmer clothes. He wore his gray, paint-splattered hoodie and I wore his windbreaker jacket and mismatched windbreaker pants over my shorts and blue tie-dyed sleeveless shirt. It didn't take long for us to give up the pretense and huddle together under his tapered gray sleeping bag.  We lay, sharing stories of childhood exploits as we drifted off to sleep.

Days earlier, sleep in such a situation—on a hard, rocky surface with little room to move and cold nipping in from every exposed gap—would have been nearly unthinkable. But my body had adapted quickly from my apartment-dwelling, bed-sleeping existence in Istanbul to my new hitchhiking and bumming around existence throughout Turkey. So despite the rocks that prodded into my back through the thin layer of tarp, the inability to turn around without bumping into J or the cave wall, and the chilling cold, I slept. You even might say I slept well.

But I awoke in the middle of the night cursing my responsible water consumption. I had to pee. That this was problematic was not immediately apparent in my sleep-muddled state. And then I remembered the layout of the cave. There was one large door and a small, waist-high window carved out the rock. Both looked out over the steeply dropping valley below. It was dark, too dark to try to navigate my way outside the cave—that would have been difficult even in the daylight—but for obvious reasons, peeing in the small cave was also not an option. I would have to pee out the window. Shit, I thought, this would be a hell of a lot easier if I were a man.

The window

I crept to the window, climbing over J in the process, then climbing up to a rocky window-ledge-like jut. I shuffled around, making almost imperceptible changes in my angle and position. It was hard to find the right spot. I pulled down my few layers—J's pants, my own, and my underwear—and backed up to the window of the cave. I had a brief moment of self consciousness as I squatted in the window, my pale ass exposed to the cold, moonlit night. I quickly shook off my modesty. This was not the time. With each hand I grabbed the rocky sides of the rounded hole that served as the window and lowered my ass even further out into the cold night air. I looked down between my legs, but I was still inside the cave, so I leaned even further, now balancing with almost all my weight on my arms. I leaned until I could look between my legs and see the shadowed rocky terrain far below.

It was in this moment that I could visualize my demise. My balance was so precarious that if I lost grip in either one of my hands, I would tumble backwards out the window, rolling down, down, down into the rocky gap below. Caught by surprise, I would likely make a soft squawking noise, like the ejaculation of an adolescent bird, or no noise at all. I could see it now. J would continue to sleep, breathing softly, sweetly. He would awake with the early morning sun, smile and stretch, turn to embrace me. Only then would he realize why he had been so warm in the night; I had not been there to hog the sleeping bag! He would find me, slumped at the base of the cliff with my pants around my ankles, surrounded by a distinct smell of urine, my pale ass shining in the sun.

These thoughts occupied me as I peed out the window then crept safely back into the sleeping bag. Though it seems like a grisly image, the idea of this death actually tickled me immensely. What a way to go! I cherished the idea that it would first be a mystery. How did she get down there? How on earth could she fall out of a cave? And why are her pants down?

I could continue to inspire mirth even after death! No, I thought, as I looked out the window at the crisp night sky, it wouldn't be a bad way to go.


Cabbage Again?


Eat seasonally. Eat locally.

While it is wonderful that developed nations are rediscovering the notion of eating in season and eating locally produced food, the reality is that most of the world eats this way by necessity. Food out of season and food that is imported is generally prohibitively expensive. And though I can afford to pay the higher price, wherever I go, I eat what is in season and abundant. There are two good reasons for this: the food is cheaper and tastier.

It's not always easy though.

When I was in southeast Asia, this meant eating no apples, grapes, or leeks. In Istanbul, it meant buying no soymilk. Everywhere

Photo courtesy of Nathan Edgerton

I've been it has meant no pecans. And here in Bulgaria in mid-winter, it means I am becoming very conversant with cabbage.

I can list the varieties of fruit and veg available in the Gotse Delchev, Bulgaria market on my hands. Cabbage (red and green), carrots, leeks (rapidly fading), onions, potatoes, apples, oranges, beet root, pumpkins and kiwis. If I see anything else when I go into the town on market day I am surprised by the abundance!

photos from tracy 068

Luckily, cabbage is a versatile vegetable. Lately, I've been eating it in sauerkraut, stuffed with rice, sauteed with rosemary and red wine, curried with black mustard seeds and coriander, smothered with lutinitsa (a tomato and pepper spread), and my favorite, eaten raw. I've been eating a variation of cabbage salad just about every day for lunch. With a rotating cast of shredded carrots, beets, raw pumpkin, oranges, onions, and garlic, the salad has stayed interesting for now. Talk to me in a few weeks, though!

The real advantage of eating this way is that it keeps me in the moment, in the present, in my current country. Instead of missing and thinking about food I ate in another part of the world, food that is difficult to find where I am now, I focus on the delicious specialties of the region I am in. So while it would be tempting for me to reminisce about mangoes, lemongrass, and dragonfruit, I am delighted to focus instead on the culinary wonders of Bulgarian winters—jams, pickles, oranges, leeks, sunflower seeds, pumkpin banitsa, and, of course, cabbage.


Side Effects of Decreased Smoking

photos from tracy 032

Sheep graze in the empty tobacco fields near Krushevo.

There are two main sources of income in Krushevo—fashioning tiles out of the local stone and tobacco farming. As it is all over the world, the latter enterprise is really suffering. Fortunately for the health of everyone, smoking is on the decline, but unfortunately for our tobacco farmers in Krushevo, this means a decrease in demand.

In the past, the Bulgarian government has subsidized tobacco so farmers could continue to make a decent living. But this year the government stopped providing that subsidy. So even last year, many farmers received 8 or 9 Leva per kilo of dried tobacco leaves while this year their compensation has dropped to 3 Leva per kilo. I'm sure I don't need to point out that that is a massive difference.

For many villagers in Krushevo, and likely in towns and villages all over Bulgaria, tobacco farmer has been the primary source of income for years, indeed many people don't know any other way to make money. But with the lack of government subsidy, clearly this will need to change.


These open sheds are drying racks for the harvested tobacco.

This long-winded introduction is all a prelude to the events of today. We drove a few of the villagers into the nearest town, Gotse Delchev, where they and a few thousand other tobacco farmers shut down a major highway as they marched in protest.

photos from tracy 099

It was a stirring sight to see so many men in their drab black and navy blue tracksuits and women in their floral trousers and headscarves gathering and marching together in peace and solemnity, yet I couldn't help but wonder what exactly they hoped to accomplish? Renewed subsidies at the expense of the government and, by extension, the Bulgarian people? What, specifically, were they protesting? A worldwide decline in demand for their tobacco? I'm not sure that trend is going to change. So while my emotions were high as I watched thousands of people struggle against tough economic changes, I couldn't help but feel pessimistic about their chances. As the Chinese proverb says, only the most adaptable survive.

photos from tracy 102

For a bit more information on this protest, check this link.


Preserving Food for Winter in Bulgaria

Though I've been away from the U.S. for over two years now (seems infinitely longer and simultaneously shorter. You know what I'm sayin') I still like to keep my finger on the pulse of some American trends. Maybe that's not quite accurate. Might be better to say I occasionally take a peek (“cop a squiz” as an Aussie friend says. Am I getting that right?) at the finger that is on the pulse. Anyhow, what I'm saying is that I get it. Cupcakes are out. Pie is in. I get it.

Besides the trendiness of baked goods, I've also noticed a trend toward canning, pickling, and fermenting. I suppose this was a natural progression from eating more locally considering that many parts of the U.S. do not have access to much that's fresh during the winter months. So now those trendy folks are doing what their grandmothers likely did: canning and preserving.

Yes, yes Sarah. But how does this belong in a your travel blog? Well it happens that I first became more closely acquainted with pickling and canning right here in eastern Europe when I stayed with a Romanian man in Bucharest and helped him prepare his giant containers of pickles for the winter. I also helped him eat up some of his sour cherry preserves—a tough task.

Now I find myself in the mountains of southern Bulgaria, a region that enjoys its sauerkraut, pickled peppers, preserved plums, and lutinitsa (a smoky pepper and tomato spread). Though I'm staying with and volunteering for a transplanted British couple, Lily and Yan, Lily is a prolific canner, preserver, and pickler so I'm still able to take part in this tradition, albeit through an English lens. This means the emphasis is off sauerkraut and more on marmalades and jams.

Let me give you a tour through Lily's pantry.

Recognize my handwriting? This is a beautiful chili red onion marmalade that I helped make shortly before Christmas. You can't see it from here, but it has the most beautiful pinkish red hue.

Lines of jarred cherries stored since the cherry glut last summer.

The obligatory shelf of marmalades, including lemon, orange, grapefruit, and mixed.

Shelf of chutneys, including apple, tomato, peach, quince (my favorite), and quince apple.

Jars of peaches from the summer glut.

Lily makes and jars some unusual jams like gooseberry, persimmon, and (my favorite) drenki, a wild, sour cherry with a very intense flavor.


A Bulgarian Joke

Apparently this joke, told by my hosts here in a small Bulgarian mountain village, brings roars of laughter at the local shop/hang-out place.

A Bulgarian man went to an employment agency looking for a job. The agent asked him, "What are your skills?"

He replied, "I can dig."

"Anything else?"

"I can also not dig."

Fin. End of joke.

What else do the Krushevo villagers find funny? An event which happened in the village will help illustrate.

A group of villagers, including my hosts Lily and Yan, convened at the shop. They heard the thumping of horse hooves, accompanied by an unusual wailing sound, coming in their direction. Everyone craned his/her neck to see what the commotion was and soon the horse came bounding around the corner and into view followed closely by a running, stumbling, and very out-of-breath man who was attached to the horse by a rope. The horse, and shortly after, the man, passed by the shop without pausing and continued precipitately down the village road.

Everyone outside the shop burst into laughter. Soon, over the laughter, the horse's hooves could be heard again. This time the horse and the running, stumbling man dragged behind the horse passed by the shop from the opposite direction.

The laughter became more raucous. This went on for about ten more minutes--the man tripping behind, trying to catch the unruly horse while the villagers looked on, beside themselves with laughter.

So while I don't fully grasp the humor of the first joke, it does appear that slapstick is universal.


Melodies and Memories: Bozdag's Theme

This is Bozdag. He is a karakachan, or Bulgaria sheep dog, a large livestock protection breed. He has taken it upon himself to escort us, the volunteers, every night to the house we sleep in on the other side of the village. He then sleeps outside our door and escorts us back in the morning.

Besides his penchant for herding, his most notable characteristic is his boundless energy. I do mean boundless. He is ready to play anytime and has a tendency to hop and bound through the snow like an over-sized bunny rabbit.

And this is the theme song that plays constantly in Bozdag's head, which may explain why, as he jumps and bounds and tears at clothing, he is unable to hear the cries of "No, Bozdag! No!"


Food Rhapsody: Dessert Soup (Che)

I realize that this picture may not inspire appetites or get anyone salivating, but behind that speckled glass window, in those metal mixing bowls lies my favorite dessert in all of southeast Asia--dessert soup. Known in Vietnam as Che, dessert soup involves any number of ingredients served with a simple syrup, ice, and often coconut milk.

A few standard options include stewed bananas, stewed pumpkin, sticky rice, black beans, tapioca, yellow mung beans, black eyed peas, jackfruit and sticky rice, pandan leaf noodles, and various colored jellies.

The standard Western palate is unused to eating legumes in a sweet dish, but I hope that won't stop anyone from trying this dessert. It is the perfect mix of sweet, salty, creamy, and refreshingly cold. When ordering, you point at the metal bowl of your preference and the proprietor will scoop your choice into a small
bowl, followed by a ladle of clear syrup, a ladle of coconut cream, then a spoonful of crushed ice.

A standard offering of cooked black-eyed peas and white sticky rice with syrup and coconut cream.

My favorite che of all is this one, known in Cambodia as Boua Loy. It is composed of glutinous rice balls (similar in texture to the Japanese mochi) filled with yellow mung bean paste. The balls are served in a ginger syrup with fresh coconut cream and a topping of crushed white sesame seeds.


My Imminent Engagement and Turkish Connection

A common language is magic. It opens up worlds that were previously inaccessible, landscapes that were previously unseen.

My Turkish has served me well. Though I've forgotten a lot of vocabulary and grammar since I lived in Istanbul in mid-2009, I've had the opportunity to use and practice my Turkish all over the world.

At the Halal Indian restaurant in Phnom Penh, I heard Turkish being spoken and invited myself to join the speakers, two men who worked at the Zaman language school. They offered me a chance to practice speaking Turkish as well as a job at Zaman. I appreciated both offers, but only took them up on the latter.

While hitchhiking in Hungary, I began to notice that several of the kamyons had Turkish license plates and while I didn't target them specifically, I sent out a silent request, and sure enough, a Turkish driver pulled over for me. Our common language was Turkish, and through it I was able to communicate basics about myself--where I was going, where I had been--and learn about him and his family in return. He bought me çay and offered me lunch, explaining that while I was in his truck, I was his guest. As we were parting, he pressed a 20 Euro note into my hand, and though I repeatedly refused, telling him thank you but I couldn't accept it, he insisted. I walked away with tears in my eyes.

How excited I was, after ten months in southeast Asia, to hear Turkish in the markets in Skopje, Macedonia. When I asked, "Türkçe biliyor musunuz?" and the market seller replied, "Tabii!" a giant grin spread across my face and I felt a sense of home.

Most recently, while staying in the small village of Krushevo in the southern mountains of Bulgaria, I have found and/or been found by the two Turkish speakers in a village of 250 inhabitants. The first, an elderly cross-eyed man, broke into a wide, gapped grin when I began speaking to him. And what a delight it was for me to finally be able to communicate first-hand with someone from the village! The man asked me if I was a maiden or if I was married, and upon hearing my answer, invited me to marry one of Krushevo's many bachelors and settle in the village. "We'll see," I responded. "Only Allah knows."

As if on cue, the next Turkish speaker I met was one of the afore-mentioned bachelors--a blond-haired, blue-eyed, high-cheekboned young man--who was training to become the village's next imam. We flirted very modestly while my friend Tracy looked at us and raised her eyebrows suggestively. He invited me to drink çay with him, "beraber" (together). We'll see. Only Allah knows.


Interview with the Vagabond: Segond Fidens

First in a series of interviews with some of the fascinating people I meet while traveling. These are people who are traveling long-term and/or traveling in unusual and inspiring ways.

Segond Fidens is a Rwandan by nationality but is now studying in France. I met him in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam when we were cycling in opposite directions. We've kept in touch since because he is one of those rare visionary travelers whom I feel fortunate to meet. He started his cycling trip in Beijing and finished in Bangkok, cycling in total around 8000 km in 100 days!

His next plan is an ambitious cycling and walking tour starting in western Europe and making its way through the middle east then across the entire African continent.

1. What motivates you to travel?
Curiosity, responsibility, self-discovery, uncertainty and discomfort; adventure and more.

2. How do you decide where to go?
I decided to travel throughout all southeast Asia to discover the real genius of China and the secret behind the recent economic breakthrough.

3. What was the darkest moment in your travels? Was there ever a time when you wanted to shove it all and go home?
The darkest moment in my travels was when I got my bike's nails screwed up by a Cambodian bike repairer, just because I attempted to negotiate the price after the operation. But I have never thought about quitting. There is not enough trouble to make me give up.

4. What does home mean to you?
Home to me means a place where people tolerate you enough and let you feel helpful.

5. Where is home?
Home is where I am needed the most.

6. Do you prefer to travel alone, with someone, or in a group?
I prefer traveling in two. It's better to have someone to share with.

7. What is most important to you when traveling: meeting people, seeing beautiful buildings/landscapes, having interesting experiences, eating local cuisine, giving back in some way, etc.?
To me what's important is to be able to learn from the local people, their culture and the best practices they have developed.

8. How do you finance your travel? Any tips for a frugal traveler?
People's generosity works. Little savings may lead you to be humble in spending.

9. What's the stupidest thing you've done while traveling? Something that would give your mother a heart attack if she heard about it?
The stupidest thing I have ever done that would make a mother cry is abandoning my studies for a wild bike ride throughout Asia.

10. What place(s) that you've been to could you see yourself living in long term?
Salem (Oregon). Mountains, water ... and people. They'd make me want settle down.

11. What was the single most delicious meal you ever had on your travels?
The most delicious meal of all is the egg-fried rice (Dan chao fan). China is not big enough for every taste's sake ...

12. Name a spontaneous act of kindness that you received on your travels.
Trust and sympathy are the most humane and sensitive feelings that I encountered during my travels.

13. Are people the same everywhere?
Yeah... Good spirits are waving and framing our journeys. And they are everywhere we want to see them.

14. Have you ever changed your plans because you met someone with whom you had a connection/friendship?
Most of the people I met had interesting plans, but they weren't exactly fitting to mine, so tending to change was tempting but I needed to stick to my previous plan.

15. Why did you stop traveling?
I stopped traveling because I need to get my degrees before hitting the road again. 2012 is coming fast, the plans are on the desk and Sarah is in, hopefully.


Hitchhiking Tales. Paragliding in Bulgaria, Hated in Bosnia, Brass Band in Croatia

The following is an excerpt from a series of emails I sent to a friend while hitching through eastern Europe:

Piotr and I just said goodbye this morning. He's heading for Poland and right now I'm thinking of staying a day or two in Belgrade.

We started from Istanbul then to Bulgaria where we stayed with a group of people who run a sports outfitter called Extreme Bulgaria. They do all kinds of extreme sports. They took us biking and skinnydipping in an ice-cold lake, then on the last day we went paragliding! It was my second time ever and was so so beautiful. And then to Sofia, and on to Belgrade. It's a cool city, got a great vibe. But my favorite place yet was Sarajevo. Wow. Simply stunning mix of mosques with Catholic and Orthodox churches. Bosnia is an absurdly beautiful country.

In Bosnia we got picked up by a guy who took us home and his sister fed us. That was before he found out I was American! When I went out of the room, he turned to Piotrek and said "Polska good. American..." and made a throat-slitting motion! Eek! But his sister adored me and gave me a big jar of ajvar--a spread made with red peppers, tomatoes, and aubergines.

Piotrek's a good guy, but it was funny how little we have in common. He's anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-feminist! Haha, my opposite.

Hitching alone was easy peasy. I got a great ride in a sleek, swift new black Mercedes which took me all the way to Zagreb in no time flat. He was going 160 the whole time. Awesome.

Tomorrow I leave for Budapest. That's the plan. Hitching alone again! Tonight to a big music festival to hear Kocani Orkestar play! (They play great brass Balkan music, a whole orchestra.)

I made hummus :) And I've been biking a lot through these little Croatian villages, filled with grapes and huge red apples and dogs that bark at me as I pass. And the people in the cars that pass me are jealous because I'm riding a beautiful black bike and singing as loud as I can and filled with so much happiness I think I might burst.

This happens to me: I'm sitting or walking or doing anything really, and then I feel some physical expansion in my heart, like my heart opens up and face itches and has to smile and I feel so much warmth and bliss and true happiness. And I just want to kiss everyone and everything!

I met a girl tonight and we might hitch together. But I just don't know, I get a weird feeling about it. I almost think it might be better to continue alone. You know how I feel about women.

In Zagreb I saw Kocani Orkestar play and danced with a guy who kept clutching at his heart as if in pain over how much the music moved him. In Bulgaria, Piotrek and I hitched with a guy who we think was a mobster. He owned a casino and the cops tried to stop him on the road, but then recognized him and let him pass. And you would be proud of me I think because on the way to Budapest, I hitched with a guy who tried to feel me up, but as soon as he touched my thigh, I just said, quite forcefully, "No." And he stopped and said something in Croatian, probably something along the lines of "It was worth a try!"

And Budapest has these clubs, these underground cellar-like clubs filled with mismatched retro furniture and kids who think they're so fucking cool. Then there's me, in my stinky shoes and tie-dye hippie shirt but no matter because I dance and close my eyes when I dance because it's just for me. I'm not trying to impress anybody. And I let my fucking boobs hang out and jump up and down until they both hurt from bouncing, but I can't stop jumping and smiling and closing my eyes. But why is it that men I'm not interested in want to dance and grind with me? I just jump and dance away from them. This girl I met tonight said I have an energy and that's why I meet perverts. Maybe she's right, I mean you know me, I'm always horny and thinking about sex. So maybe people can pick up on that, even though I don't realize I'm putting it out there.

I think my next stop will be through Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, then Greece and back to Turkey. Then I will fly either to Hong Kong or Delhi. I'm leaning towards Delhi because I have cousins there. But who knows.


Cycling in Cambodia: Videos from the Road

Cycling along the Mekong river between Kompong Cham and Chhlong. The river is not visible here, but it is never far off. You can see how its proximity affects the style of housing in this region. Here, as with every populated place I cycled in Cambodia, I was greeted with a rousing chorus of hellos.

Cycling in Cambodia: Videos from the Road

A video I took while the day was drawing to a close. You can spot my long shadow in the lower left corner on occasion. This region (northeastern) is one of the most sparsely populated in the country. I went three days between towns here--only seeing a stingy sprinkling of houses. The loneliness was at times difficult, but it was also a gift. During this stretch of my trip, I began to feel liberated from sanity, a phenomenon of which I will write more later. Until I found myself liberated from its constraints, I had never before considered sanity a boundary I would want to break through!


Hitchhiking Perverts and the Nature of the Hobo

Evlin misin? Are you married?” the driver, an athletic teacher from Ankara, Turkey asked me.

Hayir, biz arkadaşlariz. No, we're friends,” I responded as we barreled down highway D260 from the Kapadokya region in Turkey to the driver's home town of Ankara. This was my first mistake. A crucial one, it would turn out.

I sat in the backseat and J, my Danish traveling companion, sat in the front seat. After an unfortunate groping and propositioning incident earlier in our hitchhiking trip around Turkey, we had learned to adopt this seating arrangement with all our drivers. The nature of our relationship was hard to characterize. We were in that unlabelable zone somewhere between friendship and relationship. I would say we were lovers, if the term didn't immediately conjure up slinky animal print dresses, shag carpet, and other vestiges of the 70's. Friends and lovers. Frovers?

J slept in the front seat while I conversed, in my faltering Turkish, with our driver. Like many before us, he was obsessed with our sleeping arrangement.

“You slept in a tent?” He asked. “One tent? Together?”

Not this again. I answered in the affirmative, then fell silent.

“Your friend is tired.” More silence. “Maybe he is worn out from too much sex.”

Lovely. Another sex-obsessed driver. I didn't respond, instead I slouched into position, closed my eyes, and pretended to sleep.

We were making good time and soon approached the city limit of Ankara. I tried not think about what awaited us there. J and I had determined that, despite his tent and our cheapness, we would get a hotel room. This was, after all, our last night together and privacy was essential to some of the activities we had in mind. But, much as I loved those activities, I didn't much care to think about that either. He would take a plane back to Copenhagen and I would hop on a bus to go back to Istanbul.

“Where will you sleep?” our driver asked. He apologized, in true Turkish fashion, for not being able to host us in his home.

“I think we will go to a cheap hotel,” I said. “We are poor!” My broken Turkish did not allow me to make such a statement delicately.

“Will you sleep in one room? In one bed?”

Diversion. “Do you know of a cheap hotel?”

He responded, something to the effect of helping us find a hotel. One problem with my broken Turkish combined with hitchhiking was that I often got only a sense of what the driver was trying to communicate. This had previously resulted in us being stranded on a dirt road, miles from the nearest house or town. In this instance, he served us well, dropping us off at a hotel and making sure we were comfortably settled in our room. Then things became weird again. He invited himself into the room (which had two twin beds I was happy to note for propriety's sake) and invited himself into our afternoon plans. Spending time with a middle-aged, mildly perverted Turkish man on my last day with my sevgili (paramour) interested me not in the least. So I told him that we were tired and would likely take a rest. He insisted on joining us for dinner, and as we had already exchanged phone numbers, I told him to call me.

The word sex sounds the same in Turkish as it does in English and as J had been only half-asleep for most of the drive, he had caught enough of the conversation with the driver to remark to me, “Another pervert?”

I nodded.

“Lets get out of here. I don't like him knowing where we're staying. Plus I think he's friends with the owner. He could just show up any time. And this is our last night together.” I didn't need to be reminded.

So we strapped on our backpacks and walked the neighborhood, searching for another cheap hotel.

We found one, which I bargained down from fifty lira to thirty-five. (About bargaining, let me say this: It's all about the smile. Don't try to be mean. Be firm, but be friendly and flash a big grin.) After loudly and enthusiastically participating in some of our planned activities, we again hit the streets of Ankara. We were in search of the perfect meal, an actual meal eaten at an actual restaurant, sitting at a table instead of a street curb, eating from plates and forks instead of from plastic bags and fingers.

As we walked the clean streets of Ankara our driver called. With each ring, I felt guilt for not answering him.

Couldn't I just make some excuse? It's rude not to pick up.”

Sarah, he was a pervert. You don't have to be nice to perverts. Besides, do you really want to spend the afternoon with him?”

J had a point, so when the driver called a second, third, fourth time, I flinched only slightly and ignored each ring. We continued to walk the streets together. I bought a paper bag of heavy, juicy figs and J bought a tea set so he could make Turkish çay at home.

Home. The word stuck in my throat. J was returning home, but where was I going? I had quit my job in Istanbul and given up my apartment. I had a backpack the size of a schoolchild's and no future plans. I pushed this unwanted thought aside (a skill I was becoming quite adept at) and we focused on finding dinner. As other unwanted thoughts came in (“What are you doing with your life?”, “Will you and J see each other again?”, “Why are you leaving Istanbul, a city you love, full of friends you love?”) I also pushed them aside.

This was perhaps my most valuable skill as a traveler, as a hobo—the ability to focus on the here, the now. For now, I was happy, For now, I was walking down the street arm-in-arm with a fascinating person in a fascinating country, no load on my back, no load in my mind.


Getting Twered*

I left my journals along with the bigger of my two backpacks (neither of which are large enough to reach backpacker proportion) in Battambang. I guess that means I'll be going back. Either that or it means that I'll have yet another cache of my stuff scattered throughout the world. I'd like to go back though, I think.

My last day there was a delightful one. We (Mel, Katie, Alanna and I) got twered Khmer-style with inches of makeup and joyously tacky sequined outfits then had our photos taken by a young man who pushed and posed us very meticulously and who often struck the poses in demonstration with such panache that I felt ashamed and shy to try to replicate them. It struck me that his job would be one of the only niches in a conservative Cambodian culture for a man on the effeminate-to-flaming scale. He had more grace than I. Do I sound bitter? I think I've come to terms with my clumsiness; surrounded by dainty, elegant women at all times has had the effect of releasing me from any notion of my own grace.These pictures were another nail in the coffin. I think I've never looked more like a man, if that man were dressing and posing like Barbie.

The photoshoot was followed immediately by a dance party held at Casa de Battambang—a party at which other people actually showed up. It was such a fun night, filled with yummy drinks, mildly interesting conversation, new faces, and (especially fun) dancing. Justin led a swing dancing lesson right there on our driveway. The men stood in a big circle with the women in a smaller concentric circle. Every few minutes, the women would rotate clockwise and dance with a new partner. I was surprised by how well Justin taught the group. He was appropriately patient, but not too slow, and gave clear instructions and allowed enough time for practice. We danced with and without music. I hate to overuse the adjective, but it was delightful. Smey and his friend, whose name I never caught, both said it was the first time they had danced with a girl. And on that night, they got to dance with seven different girls!

*"Twer" is a very useful Khmer verb which essential means "to make". It has the added benefit of sounding, when spoken in a Midwestern drawl (gettin' twurred), like something a rap star of the last decade would say ("right thurr").