Ta Prohm, 2013

tree rising from rubble

The legs of the jungle, like the legs of a giant octopus, slither into the abandoned orifices–windows, doors, arches–of a decaying Buddhist monastery.

a scene out of tomb raider

It ensnares the sandstone columns, driving its roots deep into the veins of sanctuary walls. Ta Prohm.

entrance to ta prohm

Ta Prohm was constructed in 1186 AD and dedicated to the mother of King Jayavarman VII. Sanskrit inscriptions provide statistics on the temple’s wealth–housing 80,000 workers, 2,700 officials, and 615 dances. It was home to 500kg of gold, copious amounts of diamonds, pearls, precious stones, and silks.  (This all turned out to be an exaggeration of the actual numbers, in order to honor the king).

carvings and collapsed hallways

Its abandonment over the centuries left it susceptible to looting, and many of its relics are lost. Our guide, Steve, pointed out that many of the carvings, interestingly enough, were of dinosaurs (see the stegosaurus-like animal 2nd down). The Khmers may have known about dinosaurs for longer than we have!

central pavillion

Fig, banyan, and kapok trees parade their embellished home: hermit crabs of the forest. This is the central pavillion (I believe), where one must fend off pushy tourists for your share of this captivating stranglehold of stone terraces and flora. The impasse of centuries.

snapshots of ta prohm

 

collapsing arch

Angkor Thom, 2013

After our sunrise photoshoot, we met up with the rest of our group by the parking lot to head over to Angkor Thom [“thom” meaning “big”, so the larger of the Angkor temples and the capital of Jayavarman VII’s empire].

women cooking by Angkor Wat

A tent was already setup by the trees by local women, who tossed fresh vegetables sizzling in fiery woks and stirred soup bubbling in cast iron pots.

our tuk tuk

Our tuk tuks were embroidered with a tapestry of kaleidoscope fabrics.

We set out on the dirt road, bouncing along to the beat of the rocks underneath our wheels. The lake we passed was blooming with pink waterlilies; how I wish I could join the women taking pictures!

women by waterlilies

Those opting for a better view traveled via elephant carriage.

travel by elephant carriage

We hopped off at Bayon, which sits at the center of the capital, the official state temple. Stone faces on the towers smiled gently down at us from, literally, every corner. A friendly reminder that the gods were always watching.

bayon architecture

There are 216 of these faces in Bayon, and it is hypothesized that they depict Jayavarman II himself. The other hypothesis is that the faces are of the bodhisattva of compassion, Lokesvara. Either explanation would fit, given that Khmer monarch traditionally saw themselves as a devaraja [“god-king”].

Sandstone friezes depicting everyday life in Angkor streamed across the walls. Most typical was a procession scene of elephants, mothers and children, and festivities or armies.

my mom and i having some fun at bayon

Kissed by the gods!

Bayon, with its rusting exterior and crumbling corners, is a scene straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. There is a haunting other-worldliness that transcends the hustle and bustle of clicking cameras, waving tour flags, and bobbing visors.

Pieces of Bayon

The Comforts of Home

end of route 66 in santa monicaIt’s strange to think of home as somewhere I travel to now, as opposed to returning to. No longer can I count on being home for the holidays–I must first find my way back by way of hours of ticket price comparison, scheduling around work, and allocating vacation days.

I was told before graduating from college that wherever my job is, is where I’ll end up. For the foreseeable forever. And as much as I’ve tried to make Boston familiar to me, it remains wholly unfamiliar. To be frustratingly out of step and not in rhythm; not too unlike my uncoordinated self exasperatingly stomping on the arrows in DDR [dance dance revolution–I think I’m just dating myself here] because, I just…can’t…get this right?!

Perhaps it’s graduation goggles–I had been waiting to escape the West Coast all my pubescent life, and getting into Tufts was a blessing–or perhaps I have finally come to appreciate what was once mine and is no longer. It’s likely both. The clichés write themselves.

the borders of LA from above

Is it odd that butterflies fill my stomach and I hold my breath in heavy anticipation for all of the 6 hour flight, to somewhere I already know so intimately? I love descending upon the 30-mile galaxy of street lights, traffic stops, and the glow of suburbia.

I miss the 4-lane freeways, single homes, the sight of Chinese billboards selling McDonald’s meals. The traffic will forever be atrocious.

To be home is to sip from a hot cup of nostalgia and wear over-sized sweats from high school PE. To roll out of bed and spend the next half hour sinking into the soft, white carpet, staring mindlessly at the patchwork quilt of postcards, tchotchkes, and ticket stubs haphazardly taped onto walls.

souvenir timeline

I miss thumbing through my bookcase, which has everything including a volume of Rurouni Kenshin manga–in Chinese, because my parents didn’t allow anime or manga growing up and I sneakily bought one when they were browsing a Chinese bookstore back in 6th grade–and  the progression of ever darker literature from required reading lists. A copy of Good Omens sits perpendicular to the lineup, the newcomer. I finished that on last year’s flight home.

beanies_books

To play jenga with foodstuffs in the fridge: frozen mochi bread from Taiwan; a box of white grape chocolate from Hokkaido; a palette of jams from Kona; the jungle of reused butter, yogurt, and takeout containers that typically contain no butter, yogurt, or takeout. Eat mom’s cooking. Go pick a juicy kumquat from our tree by the front door.

I miss the sound of chatterbox Taiwanese talk show hosts and salivating at the food being showcased, which always come from “the best scallion pancake place in Taipei ever!!!”. I miss being able to walk around the corner and buy stinky tofu from the 99 Ranch food court, eat a casual meal at Din Tai Fung, and slurp through a bowl of 八寶冰 [ba bao bing, or “Eight Treasure Shaved Ice”].

food at home

Home is family, decades-long friendships, food. Home is the every day beauty of mai tai sunsets against the purple majesty of the San Gabriel Mountains. Home is where I dust off old memories, and leave new ones behind to look back on, this time next year.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat, 2013

a dark angkor watA small number of us shuffled bleary-eyed at the dark hours of 4 AM onto the bus, and back to Angkor Wat. We were going to catch the sunrise — one that, when lucky, is supposedly so vivid that it’s as if the sky were “an exploding volcano of ruby red magma” (Steven’s description).

tourists in the wingsWe weren’t the only ones. It was cold, in the high 30’s, low 40’s. We puffed small clouds of condensation, alongside dozens of other eager, amateur and professional photographers waiting in the wings for their next Instagram or 500px hit.

colors started filling the skyThe waning moon faded into gradients of blue and purple that began to color the sky, the silhouette of Angkor Wat traced in the background. Wrinkles of clouds folded in the peachy colors of sunrise.

angkor full sunriseIt had been an hour at this point, and slowly, but surely, the rounded head of the sun began to peek over the horizon. Inch by inch, it ascended.

my mom and IAlthough we weren’t able to see the “volcano”, we left Angkor Wat no less fulfilled. A perfectly still moat captured the sky.

reflections in the water

Siem Reap, 2013: the streets and nightlife

Snail cart

Snails were a common snack sold on the streets of Siem Reap. Wheeled carts overflowed with giant trays of snails parked alongside the roads, enough to pave a road with. The snails came cooked, and you could take home a small bag of chili sauce to go with them.

spice store

Storefronts of colorful spices and dried fruits could fill a library.

cherimoya cart

And one of my favorite fruits–cherimoya, or 釋迦 [shi jia]. Beautiful, custard-like deliciousness. Mmm. The cart owner patiently waited as Steven entertained our group with this fascinating fruit that you can’t find in the States.

a mid-morning nap

It seems like the most common form of transportation is these motorbike-carriage-things. Not sure if it’s because we’re in a touristy area or not.

sausage store

This fantastic array of sausages.

Dinner was back at the Sofitel–a rather standard buffet and underwhelming in comparison to their breakfast. The Cambodian desserts were delicious though!

khao dome and other dessertsI picked out some Khao Dome — coconut sticky rice filled with plantain and wrapped in banana leaves — and this coconut jelly with a gingko nut (can’t quite remember anymore?) center, also wrapped in a banana leaf. Couldn’t find the name of this dessert.

We were then treated to a private showing of the Aspara Dance. I was hoping we would be able to sit outside with the tealights and by the water, as I saw the night before. A treat nonetheless, considering  that this beautiful tradition was nearly wiped out by the Khmer Rouge, with 90% of artists and intellectuals eliminated during their regime.

apsara danceThe costumes of the Apsara are based on the devatas depicted in the bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat. Delicate steps ticked in time with palms and fingers gracefully drawing out a story, arms pulling in and pushing out like soft waves breaking ashore. A mesmerizing performance, although I wish I understood more.

pub streetOur night ended by hitting Pub Street and getting at taste of Siem Reap nightlife. Neon lights laced the river and the viewing decks lining it. Every restaurant was bubbling with tourists gaily clinking bottles of beer.

souvenirs, silk, shirtsMy mom and I spent the better half of the hour we were allotted to explore, at the bazaar of beautiful Cambodian scarves and embroidery. Dozens of these stands ran along the avenue at the riverfront, like a fortress. It was all so cheap — 3 scarves for $10 USD!

Angkor Wat, 2013

The crown jewel of my first trip to SE Asia: Angkor Wat. I assumed it would be some long, arduous journey on the bus to reach the sacred city, but it took us a mere 20 minutes to roll out from the hotel into a parking space. Traffic was already starting to get heavy starting a few miles out from the entrance. Tour bus after tour bus queued up, shuttling the hundreds of photo-snapping, sunglasses-wearing, backpack-toting tourists that would soon flood the gates.

Angkor from beyond the moat

It was high noon. And hot. Monkeys stood guard atop wooden posts outlining the parking lot. Their eyes twinkled at every jostle of our backpacks, in anticipation of a tasty handout.

From the entrance looking backAngkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. It was built in the early 12th century as a tribute to Vishnu, a Hindu deity, but the temple gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple near the end of the 12th century. Its architecture is based on Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology, with extensive bas-reliefs. The central quincunx of towers symbolizes the 5 peaks of Mount Meru, and the walls and moat symbolize the surrounding moungain ranges and ocean.

Angkor means “city” and Wat means “temple grounds” in Khmer. Interestingly enough, wat can also mean “small”. Thom, conversely, means “big”.

We crossed the moat, 190m (or 623 feet) wide, to reach the main entrance. The head of a naga peered down at us as we walked the causeway. Steven explained to us that the West door represents death (where those who pass must exit and funnily enough through which we were entering); the East door represents life; the South door is for commoners/civilians; the North door is for the “brainwashed” (can’t remember context anymore).

Tapping palm trees

Women in straw hats tapping palm trees for their sugar in bamboo tubes waved to us cheerfully as we walked down the city promenade.

Angkor Wat is built mostly out of blocks of sandstone. Elephants would haul giant stones from the quarries of Li Shi Shan, 50km (or 31 miles) away, to Angkor Wat. Engineers would drill holes into the stones for wooden piles to stand in. The stones would expand from water and the piles would get securely locked in as a result. Genius!

One of the most amazing details about Angkor Wat was that it never suffered damage from any sort of natural disaster. The sewage and piping was engineered so efficiently, that no matter the length or intensity of a downpour, all the rainwater would drain out of the temples within 15 minutes. Astounding!

Another testimonial to the architectural voodoo mastery of its designers and engineers was that the columns were completely in line with each other. As in, 500m of columns spanning the length of each side of the temple were so meticulously constructed that there is only .05cm difference at most in deviation from the center line.

perfectly aligned columnsEven more fascinating is that the column weights were calculated so precisely–i.e. each column was so identical–that they even crack in the exact same places. No more, no less. That level of accuracy and precision is mind-blowing to me. I can barely pin a ruler down hard enough to draw a proper straight line.

vendors and monkeys hanging around

Left: the drainage basin; middle: vendors; top-right: deity relief; bottom-right: monkey hoo ha ha

Running parallel to the promenade was an avenue of shacks topped by tarps, with vendors selling quintessential tourist tchotchkes–keychains, postcards, magnets–, fresh coconut, small bites, and beautiful linens embroidered with elephants.

the towersThe towers at Angkor Wat were used as a seasonal clock: the sun rises to the right of the complex in summer, and to the left in winter. Spring and autumn equinoxes rise directly above the center tower. This center tower was the symbolic center of Cambodia, the intersection of sacred and secular.

windows at sunset

Soft, sepia hues descended on the towers as dusk grew closer.

Our experience culminated in a steep ascension up the stairs of the central tower to greet Vishnu’s statue. Keep in mind that your clothing needs to be respectful if you want to go up the towers! I wore shorts that day and had to buy a skirt to cover myself up.

walking up the steps to the towerWe were given half an hour to pay our respects and tour the towers before queuing up in a line so long that it wrapped the perimeter of the towers, to begin our descent. The slope of the staircase is not for the faint of heart or those with acrophobia (me) — you couldn’t even see the next step when going down! It was terrifying.

angkor wat in 4 images

From left to right: pineapple shucking; flower reliefs; Vishnu; my group and I having some fun imitating 千手觀音 [qian shou guan yin], or Thousand Hand Guan Yin

The sun set behind the clouds and our visit came to a close. We returned to our bus via the causeway. Women skinned fresh pineapples by the water with unmatched efficiency and precision, skewering them before exchanging with a thirsty visitor for several thousand Cambodian riels.

Siem Reap, 2013: Amok Restaurant

Day 2, 12.26.2013

street of restaurantsOur first Khmer lunch of the trip was at Amok Restaurant on Street 9, near the Old French Quarter. The entrance is down a glass terraced corridor, with old neon sign for “Air Cond ->”. Amok is a delightfully colored, lilac building with blue chairs and cute, lacy, red tablecloths. The restaurant’s namesake arises from a Cambodian delicacy, amok fish. A curried stew made from coconut cream and milk, and a base of traditional Khmer spice-herb paste–lemongrass, kaffir limes and leaves, galangal (similar to ginger), garlic, nhor leaves (like kale), turmeric, shallots, and dried red chilies. The fish in amok fish are sourced locally in Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. Snakehead, carp, and catfish are most frequently used in the stew–I believe we were served carp that day.

coconut waterWe were shown up to the second floor and seated. Everyone was provided the option of having one free glass of fresh, cold coconut water, which I gladly gulped down in the heat of noon. Too bad about no free refills!

My mom and I were served individual party platters of different curries, grilled vegetable kebabs, green papaya salad, and spring rolls. Each dish was served in a bowl made of banana leaves, and the platter itself was also lined with banana leaves.

Every dish was so delicious! The red curry in the center was paired with perfectly al dente jasmine rice. Creamy and rich but not heavy, laden with bell peppers, onions, scallions, tomatoes and other veggies.

Vegetable kebabs and a banana leaf boat of stir-fried veggies had just the perfect amount of char. The vegetables came with a small bowl of what I would guess is the Cambodian equivalent of BBQ sauce. Spring roll wrappers were thin and expertly fried to a golden crisp, bubbling with fresh cabbage and vermicelli on the inside. And of course, you can’t have spring rolls without sweet chili sauce!

khmer degustation

The green papaya salad was bright and fresh–tangy with from several squeezes of kaffir lime and the hint of anise/pepper from fresh leaves of basil. Also in a banana leaf bowl was a green curry paste with blended veggies and flaming red chilis. They also drizzled a spoonful of coconut cream on top. Mmm.

Dessert was 芭蕉 [ba jiao], the short, fat bananas you typically see in Southeast Asia. They’re apparently called “Lady Finger Banana” (just looked this up).The bananas are grilled in banana leaves and served in a sweet coconut sauce. Our dish was served with warm, tender, and deliciously caramelized bananas that were delicately arranged, alternating with fresh, pink banana flower petals, around a dipping bowl of palm sugar syrup in the center. Tasty! I think the dish is called chet ang nung tirk doung, but please correct me if I’m wrong. :)

chet ang nung tirk doung

Siem Reap, 2013: Angkor National Museum

Day 2, 12.26.2013

sofitel angkor breakfastSofitel has the best breakfast buffets. That’s all I have to say. Highlights included amazing butter croissants (consistent with the perfect ones we found at Sofitel Wanda Beijing) and a fantastic assortment of fresh, local fruits. I had never seen fresh jackfruit cut open before! Nor have I ever tasted it. Now I’m in love with the stuff, but it is nigh impossible finding it on the East Coast.

sofitel angkor fruitJackfruit has a fascinating texture–crispy but also chewy at the same time (?). I would’ve unashamedly taken the entire platter had my mom not told me that eating too much will cause me to 上火 [shang huo]. In Chinese medicine, this indicates foods that are “inflammatory”, which personally means poor sleep and lots of acne for me.

Other fruits available were the largest green dates [奶棗 nai zao in Chinese] ever, sweet pineapple, red papaya, dragonfruit, and my favorite, mango. I could write a paragraph for each fruit, but I will refrain. I definitely recommend getting your hands on some fresh, green jujube if you ever come across it! Good ones are crisp like a Granny Smith apple without the tartness (just sweet), and the juice almost has a sort of milkiness to it. Hence the 奶 [nai or “milk”] part of its name in Chinese.

After a lazy breakfast, our tour group gathered and filed onto the bus to visit our first sight of the trip–the Angkor National Museum. Cambodia has over 2000 years of history, making it one of the oldest cultures in Southeast Asia. The written language of Cambodia originated from West India, Brahmi; it sounds like Sanskrit when spoken, which makes sense given that 95% of Cambodians practice Theravada Buddhism. Even more interestingly, Hindu and Cambodian can’t be read by the opposite party, but when read out loud, both Hindus and Cambodians can understand completely! Furthermore, most of Cambodian history is passed down through oral tradition. Not sure if that resulted from the fact that 60% of text on Cambodia’s history was written by China (and thereby heavily biased).

sofitel dining area

A taste of old-world luxury.

Our tour guide stopped us outside of the museum to point out the palm trees growing by the entrance. Sugar palms are the national tree of Cambodia and provides income to many Khmer. None of the tree is wasted: timber is used for construction and utensils; leaves are used for roofs, baskets, fans; branches can be used for fencing or thongs; and the juice and fruit are harvested for eating, cooking and making palm sugar.

IMG_0801The juices of the tree’s flowers are used for drinking, and any excess is brewed into sugar. Khmer unsurprisingly don’t use white sugar at all. Don’t blame them–palm sugar is much tastier!

Our tour guide, Steven, explained to us how the Khmer Rouge lay waste to the country during their rule. Over 3 million were murdered in the several-years’ reign, 1 million of which were Chinese. (Also interesting is that the name “Ong” comes from the Chinese surname “Wang”). Men and women who had undergone proper brainwashing would be separated into lines and whomever they stood across from was whom they were forced to marry. This was to ensure that brainwashing was passed down to their children.

Educated people were actively executed and institutions were torn down. It was really admirable how bubbly and enthusiastic, Steven was in spite of his family’s history with the Khmer Rouge. His aunt was a teacher and was thus sought out to be eliminated. However, none of her students nor her children were willing to rat her out in school, so the Khmer Rouge raided her home and killed all her children in front of her. One of the babies were thrown and smashed against the trees. Absolutely horrifying to listen to, to think about, to even begin to fathom. I forget how his aunt escaped, but I’m glad she was able to. And unfortunately, that’s the most helpful thing I can do or say.

driving through siem reapWhile it has one of the fastest growing economies today, Cambodians are struggling. The government is riddled with corruption and bribery. The longevity of an average Cambodia peaks around 60-65 years of age, due to the lack of education regarding hygiene and access to proper medical care. In fact, doctors kill more people than they save.  Land mines yet to be uncovered, dangerously pockmark the country. There is at least one land mine for every person in Cambodia, and many civilians die each year from mistakenly stepping on one.

The average Cambodian family has about 7-8 kids, to increase opportunities for income. A typical laborer makes around $60 USD/month. That’s about how much white-collar Americans spend on drinks on a thirsty Thursday night. Ironically, Cambodia used to be a very rich country because a ton of gold mines. This was heavily exploited by nearly every Western nation, as well as India and China, and left nothing for Cambodia. There is a rather dark joke in Chinese, that plays on Cambodia’s name in Chinese, 柬埔寨 [jian pu zai]. Instead of calling it 柬埔寨 [jian pu zai], Cambodia is instead nicknamed to 錢不在 [qian bu zai], or “no money here”, because all the gold was stolen.

siem reap streets

Waiting for the bus.

We began our museum tour with a statue of an Asura, a demon that represents the sinful nature of man. You’ll find as you explore the history and culture of Cambodia that much of it originates from Hinduism and Hindu culture. Many of the same gods such as Naga and Ganesh (to name a few) have a strong presence in the artworks we saw.

asura

Asura

It was also empowering to learn that King Jayavarman II–who founded the Khmer Empire–delegated his kingdom to his two wives whenever he was away. Jayarajadevi and Indradevi implemented social systems that provided their people, both men and women alike, the right to education, property ownership, political power, and public healthcare. They distributed property to the poor, focused on developing public infrastructure, and both were actually professors who taught and educated Khmer women. In fact-checking my notes from my trip, I came across this detailed article on the contributions of Jayarajadevi and Indradevi (if you’d like to read more) here.

We also visited an exhibit that follows the journey of Siddhartha and his path to Enlightenment. If you’ve ever looked at a statue of Buddha, you’ll notice that the right hand always sits on top: this represents removal from temptation, as the left hand is considered “dirty” and the right “pure”. I’m not sure if this is why in Indian culture you only eat with your right hand? Anyone care to enlighten me :P ?

faeries

This beautiful sandstone piece has 1700 faeries carved into it, “cheerleaders of the deities”. Women were believed to have been borne from the sea: from the bursting bubbles of the foam and mist.

There’s also a popular statue of Siddhartha with Naga the serpent protectively wrapped around him. Naga shielded Siddhartha from the rains on his 47th of the 49 days he spend in meditation, out of respect and in return for Siddhartha protecting him from an eagle that was eating Naga’s 6 other heads in the early days of Siddhartha’s journey.

ganeshaThe last story from the day was about Ganesha: the god of fortune and money. There are many different takes on the mythology of Ganesha, but the one following is perhaps a Cambodian take on it. He ran from home as a child and brought demons back with him. His mother took him in, but kept him facing the front of the house to ward off the other demons coming towards them. His father mistook him as a demon and cut his head off. Out of devastation, the parents prayed to another god for help, who told them that Ganesha’s head must be replaced within 25 steps to live. On the 24th step, they found an elephant head. And that is why Ganesha has an elephant head.

Siem Reap, 2013: a first dinner

I started my series on Cambodia all the way back in January of this year, only to flip flop to writing about other trips. It’s always nagged at me how lonely my one post on Cambodia was–so now it’s finally time to revive this series!


Day 1: Arrival at the Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra

sofitel roomThe Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra is a travel guide, textbook case of what you would imagine a luxury hotel in Southeast Asia to be like. It is, in the long line of luxury hotels off of Charles De Gaulle Road, a glorious bubble for the fortunate traveler to disconnect from the hustle and bustle of the outside. There was none of that New York impatience: “is my room ready?”, “why is the line so long?” “when will my bags be brought in?”. No, this world moved at 0.6x fewer frames per second. French colonial elegance with Cambodian influence. A zephyr would peek under the legs of sheer, white curtains shyly covering poolside villas. The soft tinkling of a roneat ek–a xylophone used in Khmer classical music–danced through the air. Plump coconuts jostled jollily under the shade of glimmering, verdant fronds.

sofitel cookies

Complimentary butter cookies!

I could go on forever, but I won’t. There are more aspects of this day to fond over: dinner. After settling down, meandering through the grounds of the resort, our tour group reassembled in the lobby to head to dinner. We were shuttled down the main road through Siem Reap, Charles De Gaulle, for no more than 1/4-mile before our bus driver masterfully backed into the cozy parking lot of our restaurant. Stepping stones led the way over a small pond, past baby palms, into the warmly-lit accommodations.

As always, the carnivores and omnivores of our group were lovingly lavished with a banquet of fresh seafood plated in carved boats, and colorful arrays of satay and skewered meats. Not to say that we vegetarians were forgotten (completely)! My mom and I were treated to a few pretty tasty dishes that had surprisingly Chinese flavors, rather than Cambodian.

dinner day 1First up was a piping-hot vegetable soup with seaweed, cabbage, tomato, silken tofu, and deep-fried tofu skin. Perfect for the highly air-conditioned room we were sitting in.

Next up was deep-fried tofu strips stir-fried with bean sprouts and some sort of lily plant (?) that looked like chives or string beans. The veggies were fresh, crisp, and sweet like all vegetables should be. Not too oily either.

Dessert–which we unfortunately had to share with everyone else ;) — was nom plai aiGlutinous rice balls filled with palm sugar and topped with copious amounts of shredded unsweetened coconut. Freshly-cut pineapple slices served on the side. Out of this world. I’ve had my fair share of glutinous rice balls [湯圓 tang yuan in Chinese], usually filled with black sesame paste, but there’s something special to be said about coconut. Anyway, I’ve linked to a recipe for nom plai ai above and may be trying it out soon myself.

I was also able to catch a glimpse of the Robam Preah Reach Trop, or Khmer classical dance, that was happening for those who decided to dine at the Sofitel. Such beauty in small movements.

khmer classical dance

Nürnberg: auf wiedersehen, Deustchland!

Day 23, 07.17.2009

off to frankfurt int'l

A solemn car ride to Frankfurt Int’l Airport

I wrote this journal entry at 4:40pm–a mere 7 hours and 20 minutes before my last day in Germany ends. It was indescribable how devastating the reality was that I was heading home. I woke up and went to school, like I had done for the past month. I met up with Abby, Kelvin, Jon, and Cory by the Schwarze Box, and all of us went up to the music room to rehearse for our performances. Not really having learned much from my choir days, I just sang a few practice songs to get warmed up. Sounded horrible.

Cory, Jon, and I decided to translate “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story into German, since that had been our group’s theme song (of sorts). I felt like I was coughing up legos or something, with all the long, German words to cram into the same rhythm. Cory and I kept messing up the same parts over and over. But probably an hour or so in, we actually sounded pretty decent. Jon was on piano, Cory sang alto and I soprano. Jon wanted the three of us to harmonize, which was hard to adjust to in such short notice. If there was anything I learned about myself from choir, was that I had no reason being in choir. Haha! No understanding of music theory/unable to follow harmonies.

Tschüß Nürnberg Hauptbahnhof! Goodbye, Nuremberg train station!

We went snooping around the music room and found a bass, violas, and a bunch of other cool instruments. Abby and Kelvin left to go swimming with the others sometime around noon. The acoustics in the room are amazing; granted, it is a music room, but we sounded so perfect in there. I really doubt the Schwarze Box, where we would be having our Abschiedsfest [“der Abschied” = a farewell, “das Fest” = celebration, “Abschiedsfest” = goodbye party], would have the same sound. We rehearsed for 4 hours, nonstop.

Amateur mistake. My throat was sore, strained, and scratchy. This did not bode well. Jon played a couple of Coldplay pieces, which was pretty on point, and A Whole New World, to which all three of us failed miserably to sing. None of us knew all the words. It went something like, “I can show you the wooooooorld~ nananana lalalala splendid!”.

Sometime in the middle of rehearsal the fire alarm went off. Everyone had to evacuate. It took about 20-30 minutes before we allowed to go back to the school. The music room was locked. So the three of us just sat on this huge pile of gym mats sitting outside the music room. We got bored, so we decided to go out and get some stuff from the supermarket. Cory got some goldfish (crackers) and Jon stole some gummy bears that were lying around on a chair at the school. They looked stale, but hey, free gummy bears [der Gummibären].

After returning to our gym mats, Jon got bored and started taking Cory’s goldfish and acting out scripts with them. Then, this woman with a ginormous growth on her body walked past. It was undeniably fascinating–all of us tried to avert our gaze from her to avoid awkward eye contact. Once she left Cory and Jon started cracking jokes about it. Really terrible jokes…(but also kind of funny). Hey, don’t judge us: you know you’d be staring too. Seriously, that growth was like the size of another, tiny human being. Cory called it a “twin”.

I think I climbed maybe 40 flights of stairs that day.

couscous

Ohmygod do I miss my host mother’s cooking. Best couscous salad ever.

I went home around 1:30pm and apparently Clara was looking for me. I had no idea they got off early today! She was home sometime around 12:00. I felt so bad about letting them worry. I had lugged several pounds of boba and milk tea from LA to Germany, specifically for the Abschiedsfest. Before we had left the US, our assignment was to bring something that represented “us”. This was mine. What I didn’t know was that you really didn’t have to bring anything to the Abschiedsfest because we were already expected to present. Well then–I guess I’ll just chug 7 pounds’ worth of boba and milk tea all by myself…no shame.

No way I was dragging all those goods through the airport again; I made about half of what I had and my host family promised to bring them when they went. I had no idea one small package of boba could make so much. It was almost enough to fill a 120 quart pot!

Clara and I had to leave early to the Schwarze Box to help set up. We had to carry out these giant folding tables and chairs from the basement of the school. Great arm work out. There wasn’t any tape at first, so we really had to improvise when we were trying to get the table covers to not fly off the table (it was windy). When the rest of the people in my group came, they were all neatly dressed in dress shirts and ties and sundresses with heels. I felt so under-dressed because all I had was a white shirt with a bit of collar, and jeans. Mir’s egal [“it’s all the same to me”]. I don’t own any dresses. Then Jon came in what looked like golf clothes and Cory just dressed as she usually did. Whew.

the best of the USAThe presentations started. Dan, Lorenzo, and Leo went first with a powerpoint called “The Best from the US”. There was a map of the US with stereotypes for each state; e.g., California was “Gays and Indian Casinos”; Wisconsin was “Cheese”; and Nevada was “Casinos, Booze, and Hookers”. It was awesome. Everyone was insulted equally–from the recently-deceased Michael Jackson (too soon) to Sarah Palin.

We were the second group to go. And it all went downhill from here. Cory came late and the rest of us were so busy helping to set up that we had no time to warm up or practice one last time. And my throat was still sore from morning rehearsals. But we were like “hell, let’s just get it over with”…so we did. It was horrifying how awful we sounded, but also damn freakin’ hilarious.

Our opening was to have Jon start out with a totally random piece, to which we would go along with until we’d “realize” that it was the wrong song, and then we’d go “JON?! WAS MACHST DU DENN?!” [what are you doing?]. Then he’d snap his fingers and shake his head and go “Ach Sheisse!” [ah, shoot!]. So over-the-top cheesy, but it worked like a charm. People were already laughing. Little did they know what they were in for…

We started singing “I Feel Pretty” and I gotta tell you, I was so off-key that I may as well just have let an elk bugle in my place. My voice had given out. Cory and I missed several notes, were out of sync, and our voices cracked. Like pre-pubescent boys, except we are not. Hell, I had no Idea why we bothered rehearsing at all. The “LALALALALALALALALALA”‘s and the “WER, WELCHE WO?” [which, what, where, who?] bits left all of us gasping for air because Jon angrily screamed them like we were a death metal band on Broadway, and it was pretty hysterical.

the stars of the show

The next platinum-record cover band right here.

Finally, Cory and I sang the last note of “I Feel Pretty” and we were expecting Jon to transition into the last few measures of “Defying Gravity”–as we had planned–but he didn’t. He just kept playing and Cory and I just stood there, nearly breathless from holding this super high note for what felt like a century. We tried to give him signals by waving our hands frantically; instead, he thought we wanted him to sing along too so he screeched like some owl-banshee-nails-on-chalk-board-thing. And that concluded our performance. The room collapsed into a paroxysm of laughter and everyone’s enjoyment was palpable. We got the loudest applause. :P

Greylin, Meghan, Ellie and Joyce were next and they sang this German song called “Kuessen ist verboten” [kissing is forbidden] and they had small dance moves to go with it. It was really cute. Mariet and Meghan then played pieces on their flutes. They were both really good! Mariet later did a performance all by herself; she sang “For Good” to a powerpoint that she had made for her host family. It was really very sweet and nostalgic, despite the fact that all of this was happening in the “present” still.

After everyone had finished performing, we all went to get dinner! It was basically a pot luck full of amazing homemade food. Cory, Jon, and I, however, decided to grab a place to sit first so we went to the ping pong table. When we came back, almost everything was gone already. Astounding. I got some Kartoffelsalat, which I forever dream about, and some salad. For dessert I got some tiramisu, but there was a little bit too much alcohol in it for me, so I dumped it on Jon. He really enjoyed it and his eyes lit up when I told him there was alcohol in it. We’ve got a budding alcoholic here.

presents

Our fearless and fabulous leaders with their Geschenke [presents]

All of us got together after most people were finished eating, and presented H. Birkelbach with this poster that we had bought: an enlarged photo of all of us on a jungle gym in Berlin. It was pretty cool. Then Lorenzo walked out with a towel over his waist…and dropped it. Underneath was this hideous pair of lime green pants that we had all signed earlier in the day. It was for H. Reynolds. Long story short, in the first week we were in Germany, we all passed this store called “Mister Lady” and H. Reynolds saw the pants and said “Now that just screams  I like men!” So we all decided to get him the pants because he knew he’d hate it/secretly love it. And he did. :)

Everyone packed up and cleaned everything; our host families went home. The rest of us, however, wanted to go to das DISKOTHEK. An absolute must in Germany. Jon, Cory, and Joyce forgot to bring their IDs with them, so Fabien’s (Cory’s host sister) mother had to “chaperone” them to get them into the disko. She did it on the condition that none of them could drink alcohol. Unsurprisingly, no one followed the rules, as was a silent rule in itself within our group. Fabien tried to stop them, but not really. Greylin was sneaking Jon her bottles that she couldn’t finish.

the diskothekThe disko itself was out of this world amazing. The theme of the month was classic rock. There was a huge electric guitar just hanging on the back wall. The music selection was fun–didn’t stick to just classic rock–and there was a good variety of genres. I sweated so much! The disko was empty at first, but by 10:30 it was packed with people, inside and out. We all shuffled out into the cool air for drinks by the bar. All 9 of us huddled together on a single sofa and just chatted. It was a great way to end the night. They played YMCA and Cory and I, like all cool kids do, did the dance.

Clara and I got home at 2am. Holy pardon-my-callousness-not-really-shit was I tired. The best kind of tired: nothing’s better than good company, good conversation, and epic proportions of fun.

my host fam and group

The amazing people of this month-long chronicle.

Bis später, Germany! Ich will dich vermissen, aber zweifellos, wird ich zurückkommen! So long, Germany! I will miss you, but without a doubt, I’ll be back! Thanks for the memories. <3