Monday, August 30, 2010

Mile 3152 -- Phnom Penh, Cambodia -- Day 13

Cambodia is a dark country. Approaching by air, the observant passenger can discern the stars in the sky more clearly than the ground. The runway is lit by a single torch in the far distance with little of the dazzling fanfare and extravagant runway lights most passengers expect upon landing in a strange airport. On foot, by night the streets are black save for the darting headlamps on passing motorbikes; there are no streetlamps. Electricity, as we will learn, is expensive here. At night, the nation's lights are put out.

Landing in Siem Reap was, in retrospect, probably a wise decision. It is an unabashed launchpad to Cambodia's ancient temples: an unnaturally swarming amalgam of guesthouses, restaurants (mostly Thai and French, in acknowledgement of the region's colonial administrators) and swarming motorbikes pulling fancifully decorated carriages. These are the tuk-tuks, Cambodia's raucous alternative to public transit, who will carry you every step of your journey across country for a small fee (in USD, naturally) and will dog you mercilessly if you should decide to stretch your legs across town for a short walk. It was an easy transition from the United States as the city lives and dines on tourism; the visitor has merely to arrive in good order to be led (or vigorously seized) by the hand wherever they wish to go.

Siem Reap is collectively charmless, lacking as it does public transit and any sense of urban coherance. It has risen out of the jungle in a haphazard manner over a remarkably short span of time after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Yet many of its entrepreneurs have done well by the city and opened a number of venues posessing great individual merit: the walled temple gardens, open-air cafes and balconied lounges all embody the best of tropical langour and invite one to lounge in the vaporous monsoon air. Khmer cuisine, while less well-known than its regional counterparts, is also thus inspired and seeks to distinguish its stew-like curries with sour notes of lemongrass, jasmine and coconut over fresh fish and shellfish from the murky Mekong waters. Scents and noise stream out of every doorway as traffic revolves in endless circuits; motorbikes are like platelets closing gaps in the wide arteries between Mitsubishi trucks and tour buses. It is otherwise a relaxed and civil place, despite the best efforts of its street hawkers and scavenging tuk-tuk drivers.

Of course, "Angkor" is the magic word on Siem Reap. Uttering it as an exclamation (à la ang-KOR) will get you a beer--another third-world Pilsner, clear and foamy--and cost you about $0.50. A more innocent "Angkor?" in question form will cause you to be whisked away in a cloud of dust by the nearest tuk-tuk driver and amateur tour guide for the famous Angkor Wat ruins, less than 15 kilometers away into the misty jungle, costing you about $35 for the transportation and an identification badge with your photo on it allowing access to the archaeological park. Nearly the size of Manhattan, these sprawling ruins attract tour buses full of French and South Koreans like nothing else to marvel at their splendor. It is rare for such attractions to live up to their own reputation, yet I believe Angkor does just that in spades. While the main temple complexes are indeed heavily touristic* and infested by waif-like children selling postcards and their skulking minders, the outlying ruins are carved straight from the Cambodian jungle in cyclopean forms of immense splendor and utterly deserted at all hours of the day. The sky was angry and overcast as Michelle and I made the jungle trek at 4:30 AM to see the temples at sunrise, yet I count this gray uncertain weather as a blessing--the green lichens and deep-hued sandstone stood out against the sky in sharp relief as if they still hosted processions of Hindu monks doing obeisance before the devaraja of Angkor some thousand years ago.

Nonetheless, I was not unhappy to leave by bus for Phnom Penh the following day.We transitioned through endless acres of rice paddies and the Mekong floodplain where stilted houses rise above the sienna-toned water. The driver was kind enough to curate a wide selection of popular Khmer love ballads on the bus speakers as we progressed, their studio reverb blaring as we lurched through villages on dirt thoroughfares blossoming with dust and lotus petals behind us.

There is less to say of Phnom Penh. It is a quiet capital by south Asian standards; the traffic is the usual scrum of wildly swerving motor vehicles, yet each blast of the horn carries with it a certain restraint and sense of caution that is reinforced by the moderate speed of traffic; a mere 40 kilometers per hour. Even the monkeys are civil, and anyone who feels the busking tuk-tuk drivers and their touts overly aggressive has never visited Delhi or anywhere else in India. Michelle and I felt a certain oddity when strolling the Mekong riverfront park with its French restaurants and lofty hotels. It is indeed odd to think of the city as utterly empty, yet it was so under the Khmer Rouge, who drove its inhabitants from their lives into jungle work camps during their deadly reign. It has since risen again and grown past its optimal size. Corruption it endemic to society here, though the police have little better to do than blow their whistles and tourists in the Wat Phnom park who tread on the temple lawn. There is little money and little investment here: even the most basic exchanges are handled in US dollars instead of the homegrown Cambodian Riel. I have been here almost a week and not even handled a single bill of foreign currency; even the ATMs dispense American dollars, a testament to the Riel's mercurial nature.

Despite the monsoon season, the clouds show little sign of granting us rain enough to wash the streets clean. Cambodia has been a worthwhile venture, yet I look forward to the capitalist paradise that is Vietnam, only a short cruise on the Mekong away. We leave tomorrow, if visas can be arranged: two Americans who long to visit Vietnam, after my father's generation spent so much time and effort to avoid the place.

View Siem Reap to Phnom Penh in a larger map

* That is, for those with the poor sense to visit them during regular park hours. For the modest "administrative fee" of $5, the park staff will suddenly forget your individual presence and you may climb the highest towers of the Angkor Wat complex after sunset unmolested. The guards will helpfully suggest this possibility to you, should it not occur for you to ask.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mile 2864 -- Salinas, CA, USA -- Day 7

Los Angeles!

You have some impression of the city, no doubt. One of the great megalopolises of America alongside Chicago and New York, the city is full of stars (at least in the eyes of its residents). I carry a great deal of Midwestern baggage with regard to big cities. Chicago is to my liking for a variety of reasons--its distinctive urban center and lakefront chief among them--and I appreciate the cultural melting pot that is New York City as well as its iconic profile across a steel and glass horizon.

Los Angeles is none of these things. Previously, I noted my surprise at the clement temperatures and ocean breeze that I experienced at Los Angeles Union Station--a sea change from the sultry heat of Indiana. I had expected a shimmering concrete jungle and was not to be disappointed, though I had never fully considered the implications of LA being a coastal city with a maritime climatic influence. My stereotypes for city and its residents were mostly validated: poor drivers and mired freeways, it was an automotive purgatory with an endless expanse of flat houses and squashed commercial space inhabited by the trendiest legion of groomed fashionistas this side of Tokyo.

That being said, I had lovely visit. I made a rendez-vous with Michelle, who will be my traveling companion and her close friends, Ashley and John, whom I had never met. Both are lovely hosts and I hope to renew my acquaintance with them at greater length in the future. I stayed at their apartment in Santa Monica just long enough to get my bearings and get a sense of the wide breadth of the city. I confirmed my presuppositions about Los Angeles in a very neat fashion--too neat, if you ask me--as it no doubt deserves a more detailed evaluation and a much longer stay to make an informed judgment as to its relative virtues. Time is short and let me close by saying that in Los Angeles you will see what you expect to find in the city. Anything and everything may exist somewhere amidst the sprawling neighborhoods (or more accurately, disparate human colonies) that make up the greater metropolitan area. It is no worse than I had at first supposed and perhaps somewhat better, though I regard it as a failed urban experiment that I and my four generations of eponymous ancestors absolutely abhor.

Michelle and I left together after only two days in Santa Monica for her hometown of Salinas, a pleasant day's journey north along the historic Highway 1. While I do not normally condone driving as an effective means of sightseeing, the Pacific coast highway is really not to be missed. The palisade cliffs, kelp forests and crashing waves of central California are a sight both dramatic and uniquely American. This is particularly true on Sunday afternoons when the speed limit is not regulated by signposts or even the winding lanes of traffic mere inches from the plummeting cliffs, but rather by the slow, determined progress down the coast made by beetle-like Recreational Vehicles and Airstream trailers. These specimens are all but extinct in middle America but thrive along the temperate coastline as rental machines for the comfort-conscious driver and family with a high disposable income.

Though the days since have entailed a great deal of last-minute preparation as a result of my excursion into Southern California, I am pleased to have done so not least because I was able to visit several of the places my father called home when he was my age, chiefly Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. There is much charm and even more money to be found in theses places besides the waves and ubiquitous surfers paddling on the horizon. Yet all this pales as I face the prospect of departing for Cambodia tomorrow afternoon at 1:20 PM. I suspect that the flight will be long and uneventful much like teleportation, though it does cover the distance of 7814 miles at a speed that cannot yet be bested by the commercial market. While my father encourages me to include this figure into the sum of my total mileage (as you see in the title of this post), I myself am more interested in keeping record of my total overland miles, and as such I will keep that tally separate from my overall mileage which will include two instances of air travel both to and from the United States.  

Tomorrow is the real beginning of things, even though I left home a week ago. Michelle and I will be breaking gauge (from American Standard Gauge to nothing at all--there is no conventional rail travel in Cambodia at present, courtesy of the Khmer Rouge) and crossing oceans, beginning our Trans-Asiatic crossing in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

I hope to see you there.

View Los Angeles to Siem Reap in a larger map

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Mile 2492 -- Los Angeles, CA, USA -- Day 4

To me, the American west exposes one of the great secrets of our nation: that much of it is empty. Perhaps I am alone in the believing in the fallacy that America is a fundamentally populated nation, yet I must confess that no amount of reading academic texts nor pioneer fiction and spaghetti Westerns prepared me for the reality of the Great Plains.

I am crossing them by train, specifically Amtrak's Southwest Chief. The train consists of nine cars and three engines: three coach and sleeper cars, an observation lounge, dining car and a baggage car. The modern-day Chief is of course successor to the Santa Fe railway's Superchief, the so-called "Train of the Stars", one of the great 20th century luxury trains with Pullman cars and uniformed porters serving haute cuisine on silver platters. My father took the train with his family back and forth to Chicago in the 1950's and can attest to its former glory; while the route has changed little over the years, my coach seat is no doubt a far cry from the feather-mattress that he enjoyed as a child (let alone the fact that the Superchief set its fastest run speed in 1937 at 39 hours and 49 minutes; four hours faster than its Amtrak cousin). My seat is not dissimilar from a first-class airline berth, with ample legroom and a long recline as well as a footrest though I have chosen to carry my own provisions aboard in order to avoid the microwaved fare in the dining car. The long-haul passengers such as myself who have resigned themselves to spending two full nights in coach seats are seated together at the rear of the train, where we can observe the steady progress of the train and its elegant curvature as it bends in wide arcs across the landscape.

We speed across long tracks of standard gauge, the great expanse of angleless land and sky surrounding the train like a perfect cube. Sagebrush, red rocks and Angus cattle abound on all sides punctuated by the occasional flight of a skulking coyote before our rumbling diesel locomotives.  The towns of Western lore pass by day and night: Kansas City, Dodge City, Flagstaff and others, each a dusty affair of signals, switch yards and dwindling fortunes.

My fellow passengers are from all walks of American life. My most intimate acquaintances (of the last several hours) include Raymond--a rusty, old pensioner from the Bronx--Jemira, a young lady and her elderly grandmother--and Malachai et al., the young patriarch of a 21st century Amish family. Without doubt, the train is an ensemble cast of characters, each deserving their own particular sketch. A comradeship unique to train travel has sprung up among us who will never meet again upon reaching our destination, sharing much between us that might otherwise remain unsaid.

Raymond, like myself, is a traveler. The open spaces we now pass by appeal to him given the close living spaces typical of Long Island. A staunch advocate of timeliness on the rails, he has memorized our timetable to an even greater degree than I. (For this reason, I should introduce him to the doctrines of Mencius, the great Confucian scholar). We consult our pocket watches together at each stop and tut-tut approvingly at the conductor as the train glides into each station on time (which our train #3 typically is, approximately 83% of the time). Raymond is pursuing a grand tour of the United States by way of its great ballparks in a triangle with points in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Chicago. His affection for baseball is such that each morning he scurries into the station to purchase a newspaper with adequate sports reporting and was much chagrined to learn that my cellular phone was insufficient for checking the scores in real-time.

Jemira is a far more patient companion. She knows much of geology and remarks upon the canyons and rock formations that we encounter along the way with the measured tones of a consummate tour guide. Though I expect that she is my own age, Jemira's grandmother snaps awake in an instant when I speak to the girl. Ever the chaperon (though I never hear her speak a word in English) her eyes hold a tacit suspicion of my conversation with her granddaughter. The young woman rolls her eyes at me. Born in California, she is a budding novelist and I admire her success at writing in English. She shows me a bundle of papers--her great American novel, she says to me with a wink. The irony is not lost on her as Grandmother rattles off some phrases in curt Spanish at the two of us to which Jemira chatters back. I look over the novel draft  as she tends to her relative, making a few corrections to her prim cursive text.

As the plains fade way behind us, the train begins to rise through the Raton Pass (7834 feet above sea level, necessitating the third locomotive at the front of the train) and at its peak the crags and scrub desert of New Mexico are at our feet. The train passes through a long tunnel and in the darkness I feel Jemira return and pluck the manuscript from my grasp once more, carefully noting my remarks.

"Now tell no one what you saw!" she laughs. "Trade secrets, you understand. You'll have to wait for the paperback."

"Of course," I replied, noting a horned antelope skipping across the landscape, content to look for her on Amazon some years hence.

I enter into a description of Malachai and his family last of all, for it took me longer to enter their circle. We left Albuqurque and he turned to me. "I'll bet you a turkey you've never sat this long either," he says.

I concur; my previous record was 20 hours on a train to New York. I inquire after his destination and that of his family: eight men, women and children spanning three generations.

"Tijuana. It is our first time away from Michigan."

The decision to travel there by train had not been made lightly. Malachai's father maintained buggies and kept horses, yet the thousands of miles to the Mexican borderlands would no doubt prove overwhelming even for the most determined horse and driver. His wife sat next to him with a squirming infant in her arms.

"My son," Malachai said. "He has a brain tumor and there are doctors that can help him in Mexico. American trained, I am told."

And we can afford them, I clearly understood from his gaze.

We spoke little more of the matter. For what could be said, beyond further grumbling at American health care. I am normally speechless on account of reticence, not shame or surprise.

Malachai told me much of his family. They were dairy farmers and between the vast assortment of uncles, brothers, sons and cousins their family holdings totaled over 600 acres near Camden, MI. They had seen the rise and fall of many larger farms with better financial backing even as their friends and neighbors had begun to sell off their land in search of an easier life. We spoke of windmills, of cattle and cheeses (their primary product) and I took great joy in experiencing the Western scenery at their side. Their wonderment was infectious at the tracks and tunnels, canyons, red soil and rocky mesas. Together we marveled at freight trains passing in convoys, each individual longer than than the eye could see carrying Chinese goods out of Californian ports. The Western stones burned with raw color across New Mexico into Arizona and the canyons ran red with murky waters. The Amish family peeled away a worldly lens from my eyes for which I am grateful.

The train appraoched Los Angles at dawn of the next day, a four-hour approach through the metropolitan perhiphery toward a city I regard with uncertain intentions. I wished my erstwhile companions luck at the platform, some of whom who would need it more than others. The air bore a plesant chill to it, a shock to my preconceptions as I stode away toward the waiting car where better-known companions awaited me.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Mile 0 –- Bloomington, IN, USA –- Day -3 until departure

In Bloomington, the sky is a wash of gunmetal haze and the ground has begun to crack for want of rain. The quiescence of summer is given way before the vanguard of returning university students who walk the shimmering pavement, pitting the fulsome heat of youth against the soaring temperature. At length, even the clamorous tone of the cicadas fades; the still air hangs like gauze as distance dissolves into humidity.

The summer monsoon in Cambodia sounds better than it once did.

You will forgive this grim paean to Indiana in the month of August, but it is only proper to consider the merits and faults of my own home before commenting on foreign cities and their environs. Bloomington has been my hearth for many years and I am inordinately fond of it, perhaps giving context to my later remarks if I now say something of the place.

I have spoken of heat that makes me long for tropic climes and alluded to the presence of Indiana University, a pleasant campus of short skirts and limestone shadows. Indeed, the chalky aspect of most academic and municipal buildings in Bloomington makes it a city of ivory towers; a generalization, perhaps, in light of the old neighborhoods of peeling Victorian construction and abandoned manufacturing plants, but an accurate and useful metaphor. Southern Indiana is much know for the production of cattle feed, hogs, gravel and stone blocks: thus I believe it best to call attention to the community's most upmarket means of production.

The town itself is unsurprising--a center square with a towering courthouse (which I need not remind you is surmounted by a bronze trout) ringed by shops and dining as well as the university campus, in turn surrounded by established neighborhoods then again encircled by a weedy hedge of businesses occupying long strips of concrete, very few of which involve any actual state of déshabillé. These are each interspersed with young forests and even younger reservoirs which have settled across and the land's ancient contours, untouched by the glaciers that flattened the northern half of the state during the Pleistocene era.

This arrangement can be seen throughout the nation, if my sundry adventures along the numbered highway system are any guide. Whether my fondness for Bloomington stems from its small-town characteristics and Midwestern timbre enhanced by higher education or some elemental connection to the place where I was raised (both may well be the case), it is an admirable city at odds with its corn-fed surroundings. Indiana University stimulates and attracts worthy citizens and sets an example of cultural pluralism just as Bloomington has begun to conduct several worthy experiments in community living. Recycling, for instance, has begun to improve in Bloomington in recent years as has the availability of regional produce and artistic pursuits including music, cinema and theater in addition to the slow transition from an automobile-centric city to a walkable pedestrian downtown.

These facets of local life are growing, for now, and I find them promising. If they take hold, then the city will prosper in the years to come. I take comfort in Bloomington's ability to change and adapt from its agricultural and industrial past and in due course I will be glad to return to it as an oscillating resident: always leaving and always returning once again.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

On Amateur Cartography

To me and no doubt to others, maps are the quintessential basis for travel. They are the traveler's braille, filling in the gaps of an unseen world that is speculated to exist beyond innumerable barriers--be they subdivisions, vast oceans or mountain peaks.

More importantly, perhaps, the customization (rather than the actual creation) of accurate maps for personal use has become commonplace in the digital age. A tepid revolution to many who enjoy charming yet cumbersome paper maps, even the best atlas seems to be become dated all too quickly in today's turbulent political climate. As much as I admire the Mercator projection that hangs on my wall, the fact that it still shows off Yugoslavia like cubic zirconia at a De Beers luncheon suggests that the time has come to redecorate my bedroom wall.

Google is the most obvious culprit with regard to digital mapping, allowing for the customization of their own mapping software with simple markers and waypoints. Where cartography was once the province of skilled experts comfortable with occasional guesswork and artistic license, the individual is now free to adapt maps of any scale to their own surroundings for specific purposes and may expect them to be reasonably accurate.

I've begun to experiment with this phenomenon myself, and it lends itself well to my upcoming travel plans. For the time being, I invite you to view the first American leg of my trip (from Bloomington, IN to Los Angeles) simply rendered in Google maps with the promise of more renderings to come:

View Bloomington to Los Angeles in a larger map

Sunday, August 1, 2010

An Age Undreamed Of

Some days ago I procured a postal scale with the zealous intention of weighing the objects I intend to carry with me overseas. The experiment has been, on the whole, successful and illuminating. One does not usually consider the mass of one’s entire kit down to the last woolen sock until it is far too late to do anything about it save for slipping away in the dead of night, leaving the dead weight behind piecemeal—a pair of trousers or an off-colored shirt conveniently forgotten and left for one’s erstwhile host to dispense with.

At first, I was pleased by the apparent thrift and economy of space within my backpack as evidenced by the slender weight of 12 kilograms. This self-satisfaction soon turned against itself as I reached deep into the bag’s maw and began to pull forth neat stacks of bound manuscripts, their pages harboring the comforting scent of library ink. Books, it seems, will be the death of me to say nothing of their contents.

I am very particular about the care and condition of my books, as anyone who has borrowed from me will attest. While it pains me to subject my library to the rigors of travel, it is an inevitable by-product of overland travel and the long spells of effortless motion in a train carriage. The neat stack that tipped the scales in front of me at 5 kilograms was well-balanced and representative of my genre tastes: Cryptonomicon, War and Peace, a Thomas Cook timetable and the redoubtable Conan of Cimmeria. It was readily apparent that one or many of these volumes must be left behind for the benefit of my lower lumbar, but which had the least merit for a book-weary traveler?

There were certain biases to consider. The English timetable I could not easily do without for obvious reasons, as I cannot read Mandarin or Cyrillic script. Moreover, Cryptonomicon contains precisely 1168 pages while fitting ergonomically into the palm of my hand, providing unmatched physical comfort and sustained reading over a long period of time, both of which together grant it a reprieve from the shelf at home. There only remained, then, Conan and Tolstoy to consider.

They began on equal footing with one another. Both works are considered (by me, at least) to be classic literature and highly significant within their own particular niche—be that 19th century Russian literature or 1930’s American pulp fiction. Both also have a long rap sheet, War and Peace for being lengthy and impenetrable and the very character of Conan for being portrayed on screen by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Tolstoy certainly flexes a literary muscle that the legendary barbarian cannot hope to match, but I hope you will not despair of my literary tastes when I tell you of my final decision in favor of Conan.

It was not an easy decision. War and Peace, of course, is one of the great literary works in Russian or indeed any language and is also regionally appropriate. I have read it before, but at an age when I could not fully appreciate its crafted relationships and the dramatic journey undertaken by each of Tolstoy’s characters, both across the colossal expanse of Russia as I plan to do but also through a national psyche torn and tested by war. Yet the novel’s physical journeys are marginalized by the characters’ inward development and self-discovery—all 580 of them. The novel itself is a memorable canvas of upon which the themes human rationality and personal meaning underlie a gleaming façade of Russian aristocracy in the early 19th century. 

Alternately, Conan of Cimmeria is a collection of short stories centered around the titular character, himself a traveling exile (and yes, a barbarian, not to put too fine a point on it). Where Tolstoy’s prose is subtle and deep as the Siberian tundra, Conan’s creator Robert Howard (a hard-up Texan pugilist) beats words into fanciful arrangements as if they were gold leaf adorning a statue: gleaming, unmistakable and occasionally in poor taste.

Conan is confronted by concrete problems and adversaries such as the Stygian necromancer, Thoth-Amon and other villains like Khostral Khel, the iron demon of Xapur whilst being adored by voluptuous women and lured ever onward by dreams of riches and conquest in the antediluvian Hyborean Age, a mythical era millions of years before the Earth was encased in glacial ice. These are tales of places and environs rather than characters. Such temporal motifs serve to further the overarching theme of the Conan stories: the duality between civilization and savagery in human society. The further theme of barbarism as a form of social freedom provides a strong counterpoint to the authoritarian societies with which Conan interacted as an outsider. Frequently, Conan’s egalitarian personality conflicted with the hierarchical decadence and human slavery frequently encountered within “civilized” lands. In an ironic twist, the supposed barbarian is proved to be ethically superior to his aristocratic betters.

Conan’s character is familiar to travelers, wrapped in lush prose and fanciful imagery as he embodies the wanderer’s desire to walk freely and meld in and out of foreign cultures as if they were shadows while still retaining certain strength derived from a far-away homeland. He is a discoverer in the Columbian sense, finding that which was rumored and thought to exist but exotic and hidden from the outside world. He is a traveler’s traveler, abroad without purpose save for self-enrichment. Never mind the fact that I’m not hunting temple idols or lost jewels—Conan and I are much the same in our determination to walk outside the confines of our everyday life and participate with the world at large. Thus, for this consonance and the emphasis on rich setting rather than rich characterization Conan has fought his way by guile rather than brawn into my traveling pack, a decision I am likely to revisit but one I am eminently pleased with.