Travel

A Tourist In My Own Back Yard

This essay also appears in my local weekly newspaper, Lamorinda Weekly.

In the beginning: dark, damp soil. A small, black plastic pot of hope. Nothing seems to be growing but my own impatience.

A few evenings later, the dirt has begun to mound and rise, swelled by a pushing from below. In the morning a white nub has appeared below the broken surface of the soil. By evening the protuberance has thickened, a loop of pale white rope tinged with green. The next morning a head is crowning, something large and thick and green dragged up out of the dirt. By the end of that same day, the head has revealed itself, the stalk straightening and hoisting up the bean from which this miracle was born. …

All We Have To Do Is Breathe!

Last time, I wrote about our amazing dive trip at Raja Ampat, Indonesia. We had one incident that was pretty frightening at the time, but in the end was a great learning experience. I wrote about it for the British magazine Diver, “Britain’s best-selling diving magazine.” My story appears in their May issue! In the lower right corner of the cover you can see a photo of Yvonne and me.
Return with me now to Raja Ampat for a somewhat different take on what can happen when you’re diving in unfamiliar conditions. Click on the cover image, or right here, to read the story.

Diving Raja Ampat

Bluntsnout Scorpionfish

All around me was an utterly alien landscape. I tried to slow my breath, to be still, to float as quietly as I could. A forest of soft, beige coral swayed gently in the bluish-green light. A perfectly camouflaged pygmy seahorse, only 1/2-inch long, clung to an enormous fan coral with its tail. …

Volunteering in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Twelve well-behaved children sat politely on the floor, their beautiful, smiling faces looking up at Mike and me as we stood in front of the small classroom. It was about 7:00pm on a Thursday evening, and they were there to learn English. We asked if they had anything they wanted to know about us. “What’s your favorite color? And your favorite animal? Your favorite fruit?” These were not the questions we had expected. But what should we have expected a group of five to twelve-year old kids to ask? “What do you think about the current state of affairs in the U.S.?” Not!

We had been touring in and around Siem Reap that day, visiting a silk farm, Angkor Wat and other Khmer temples, with our Cambodian guide, Borin. Being a tour guide in Siem Reap is a fairly good way to make money, and if you know English and especially Chinese, you’re more likely to get hired. Borin was learning Chinese and his English was pretty good. I was actually surprised at the extent of his vocabulary, but tour guides pick up a lot of words from their clients.

We came to learn that, in addition to working as a guide, Borin volunteers his time a couple of evenings a week teaching English to a group of children in his neighborhood. When we heard this, Mike and I offered to visit his classroom and speak English with them. Borin’s three children were in the class; the smallest, age 5 and the oldest, age 12, eagerly raised their hands whenever we posed a question to the whole group. Borin explained that learning English is imperative for children in Cambodia. “English is a passport to a better job, the key to prosperity and having a better lifestyle. It is hope to a better future,” he said.

Standing in front of the classroom, I came alive! My natural desire to write on a white board and teach were ignited. I had the children guess English words by playing Hangman with them, which they loved—and they were good at it! Mike and I sang English songs with them, racking our brains to remember the words to The Wheels on the Bus, the Itsy Bitsy Spider, and Old MacDonald Had A Farm, songs we hadn’t sung since our now 22-year old son was small.

The coup de grace, however, was when we taught them how to sing and dance the Hokey Pokey!

In Cambodia there is a shortage of English teachers and a lack of resources, such as tables, chairs, books, and school supplies. When asked what we could donate, Borin requested tables for the children to study. We gave him $24.00, which was enough to buy four tables. When we received a picture of the children sitting at the tables, we felt glad that we had made a small difference.

Borin’s daughter, Nary, hopes to become a doctor when she grows up. With the efforts of her parents and so many other people who are committed to helping the next generation in Cambodia, she hopefully will get her wish.

Note: There are many opportunities to do volunteer work in Cambodia. Some organizations charge a fee, but many don’t. Even just asking your guide, as we did, might unveil some.

Hope for Cambodia

 “Rule 6. Screaming not allowed when being whipped or shocked with electricity.” —Posted sign at Tuol Sleng Prison

Our river cruise was anchored for the night in the Tonle Sap River. After a multi-course dinner including fish curry, fried rice, and beef salad, the twenty-three passengers gathered in the outdoor lounge on the upper deck. The crew, mostly young Cambodian men with poor English skills, were anxious to show off their substantial musical talents.

We listened as they sang their hearts out. Western songs by Elvis Presley, Bette Midler, and Kris Kristofferson. A few Cambodian pop hits. They sang in harmony as well as solo. One played guitar, another was a perfect showman—chin tilted up, smiling, eyes closed as he held a long, soaring note; our tour guide joked that he was going to win Cambodian Idol.

I couldn’t help thinking about how fortunate they were. A few decades earlier, singing those songs would have cost not only their own lives, but the lives of their families and friends. …

Negotiating with Nomads—The Essay!

In August, my essay Negotiating with Nomads won 3rd prize at the 2019 Book Passage Travel Writers Conference. And now, here it is on the Wanderlust blog at Geo Ex Travel!
https://www.geoex.com/blog/negotiating-with-nomads/

The Scooter of Doom

A village in Ooh-Tah
Where the roofs are thatched with gold
If I could let myself believe
I know just where I’d be
Right on the next bus to paradise
Sal Tlay Ka Siti
— The Book of Mormon (the musical)

This morning, when I told Yvonne that I was going to put my hearing aids in, she said, “Huh?” and guffawed loudly when I repeated myself. She has pulled that little gag on me countless times, and I’ve fallen for it every single time. …

I Can See Russia From My Veranda!

I am not really a cruise vacation sort of person. I prefer to spend enough time in foreign ports to get a feel for places, to experience life there even if I’m not actually living the way the locals live. But the cruise I’m on right now is really, really good and I can finally appreciate why some people make cruising their first choice for travel. Of course, it depends on the ship. …

Buddha Day

As we headed out of our hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia, young hotel staffers near the door greeted us with wide smiles and folded palms. I’m sure it was required of them, but over time we found that their warmth and friendliness were very genuine. Buddhism’s call for kindness to others is part of Cambodia’s culture and there was a gentleness to many of the people we met during our time in Cambodia.

Outside, several tuk-tuks offered us rides. We declined, preferring to walk the short distance to the tourist market area, where there were hundreds of shops all selling basically the same stuff: cheap jewelry, clothing, and leather goods. High-quality, gray-market Nike and Under Armor shirts can be had for $5 if you’re willing to negotiate. …

Moroccan and a Half

I was thrilled and honored last year when an abridged version of “Moroccan and a Half” was published on Hidden Compass, an online travel magazine. There, I got to share space with some amazing and even famous writers and photographers. This past March 1, I was equally honored when the original unedited version won a Solas Award in the Destination Story category from Travelers Tales. Here is that story.

 

Moroccan And A Half
To understand a people, you must live among them for 40 days. -Arabic proverb

 The taxi driver glared at me when I demanded that he use le compteur. “What do you think that is?” he snapped in French, pointing at the already-running meter under his dash. Looking both pained and angry, he glanced into the rear-view mirror at another passenger already in the back, then turned again to face me.

Switching to English, I apologized as I got into the front seat of his bright-red petit taxi, explaining that every other driver in Marrakesh had insisted on an inflated, fixed price for tourists like me. “Are you a tourist?” he asked, his voice still raised, chiding me. “Aren’t you living here?”

I wasn’t sure how to answer.

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