A veteran travel writer’s take on where the LA diner is transported…
Plan Check (Santa Monica) is a new-American comfort food haunt made even tastier by its open-air social-atorium that’s chock-full of LA’s best characters, from bushy-bearded dudes wearing ski caps to those opting for designer t-shirts/store-ripped jeans/flip-flops. Everyone let’s their hair down at this upscale-casual industrial hangout where the soundtrack is human laughter. Debuting with the dynamite crab dip (masago, charred tomato, nori, toast) creates a leadoff moan, while the stuffed mushroom (roasted portobello, swiss cheese fondue, crispy kale, roasted garlic steak sauce) adds only silence. The craft beer (hello santa monica brew works Witbier) inspires system-wide comfort, too. The nine-seat bar slings signature cocktails including Plan Check Penicillin (el silencio mezcal, ginger, lemon, agave, fennel, and a “buzz button” that makes your tongue tingle) and the creamy El Pomelo Rose (more el silencio mezcal, pamplemousse rose liqueur, campari, agave, lime, egg white, edible bouquet). The mixology mastery here—happy hour made easy—adds digits to the sidewalk-strolling would-be models. Wait, entrees too? Make room for the Lobster Pot Pie (curried lobster bisque, beets, green beans, corn, carrots, potatoes) because you’re going to be here for a while. ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
BOA Steakhouse (Santa Monica) is not your grandfather’s stogie-scented hangout, yet. While waiting for the steak to blow you away, beware of the unstoppable three-tier Chilled Seafood Platter (you name it, it looms) accompanied by a trio of dipping sauces and a seared tuna ceviche offering as the tower’s cone. The 17-page drink list is not short on revealing there’s something for everyone here; also a Wine Spectator award-winning list (hats off to The Prisoner, a Napa Valley Zinfandel-Cabernet). The modern-day cuisine also reverses trend with prime Omaha beef options including a “40 Day” Dry Aged New York Strip and Center Cut Filet Mignon (the choice for savants leaning toward weller-done). Other selections include Certified Organic Beef and Premium American Wagyu, all served with a choice of rubs and house-made sauces, including BOA’s own J-1 sauce. Traditional steakhouse sides like the tableside-made Classic Caesar Salad and Mac-n-Cheese help to weigh down your to-go bag. If you’re able to look away from what’s happening on your table, take in the colorful ambience, floor-to-ceiling wine racks, and outdoor or indoor options to behold the ocean across the street—everyone else is! Gluten-free diners warmly accommodated. And oh yeah, grandpa’s drink is waiting in the form of an El Olvido (patron silver, pineapple, poblano chile, Mexican honey, smoke-infused bitters). ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
Sushi Roku (Santa Monica) brings the high-end LA sushi experience back down-to-earth (since debuting in Hollywood in 1997). With a dash of contemporary California cool (jalapeños, olive oil, on so on), fresh fish handpicked from the world’s pristine waters are melded with an artistry achievable only by a seasoned sushi chef. The Yellowtail Diced Chiles (yes, spicy) and the Albacore Sashimi (ponzu, crispy onions) immediately showcase this innovative twist on Japanese tradition. The signature rolls dazzle, enter the Katana (spicy tuna, shrimp tempura, tuna, yellowtail) while the mainstays like the Softshell Crab roll won’t disappoint. Digging deeper into the menu, the freshwater eel (unagi) broke new ground for my palate. Circling back to the cold appetizer menu to sample the Fluke Kumquat Sashimi (yuzu vinaigrette) and Blue Crab Tartare (with uni & caviar) made time and place stand still—until the hot waitress returned. Exotic but casual, 100 seats share four setting options, that include an open-air patio, a 20-seat cocktail bar, and a 10-seat sushi bar. Either way, you’re within easy reach of a specialty cocktail like their Skinny Bulldog (bulldog gin, veev acai spirit, cucumber, lime, agave, sea salt). I was not embarrassed to raise my hand for a second miso soup. Ps, the name Sushi Roku is via the Japanese slang word for “rock,” implying “rock and roll sushi.” * The three restaurants above enjoy ocean-breeze locales near the same waterfront intersection (Ocean Ave @ Santa Monica Blvd). ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
Westwood’s Napa Valley Grille experience is a morphing of crisp décor, wine excellence, and fantastical starters like their Crescenza Cheese & Serrano Ham Tartine (pickled onions, arugula, raisin-pecan bread). The words Napa and Valley together ups any ante, and this inspiring space does not fail LA. The multi-room indoor/outdoor space can comfortably seat 370 diners. The long and handsome 20-seat bar is as inviting as any table in this sweet-sixteen-year-old institution that just got a $2 million facelift—which means new menu and new vibe mingling with its old-style neighborhood charm. Brick-oven flatbreads include the Roasted Vegetable (brussels sprouts, heirloom carrots, cauliflower, garlic, basil) and the Seasonal Harvest salad takes no prisoners (roasted kabocha squash, green dragon apple, glazed walnuts, mixed greens, maple-olive dressing). You can up your degree in wine to in-the-know here—the leather-bound wine guide for servers includes tasting notes highlighting the nose and palate of every choice on the list (borrow one). Their cozy wine cellar seats eight guests. Along with a curated selection of international wines, this grill also proudly showcases its private selection from the Tavistock Reserve Collection. While you’re at it, pair something with their sensational Cast Iron-Seared Sea Scallops (sweet corn purée, charred hearts of palm, ginger-citrus vinaigrette). Seeking a walk on the wild side? Their designer cocktail, the Spaghetti Western (lime, Giffard orgeat almond syrup, Solerno, Milagro Tequila Reposado) has your name on it. Need to keep it simple at lunch? The Grilled Wagyu Cheeseburger (Monterey cheddar, caramelized onions, brioche bun) is misdiagnosed as simply a cheeseburger.
A country’s history is discovered in its songs.
Music mobilizes mortals. Estonia lacks military might and has always been surrounded by much larger countries with intimidating armies. Russia, Germany, and Sweden all vied for its control, creating a tug of war that lasted centuries. Tough times. Inspired by the fall of the Iron Curtain, Estonia symbolically overcame its final suppressor, the U.S.S.R., when country-wide choir jam-bands launched their Singing Revolution. A Baltic Woodstock. Here, choirs outrank sports as a national pastime—some attracting as many as 30,000 singers. Song festival fairgrounds, with their signature bandshell arches, are everywhere.
After 50 years of Soviet repression, in August, 1989, two million Baltic citizens, including people from neighboring Latvia and Lithuania, created an unbroken 350-mile human chain linking the countries in their call for freedom. The likeminded people clutched hands, and changed their destiny. Estonia, where medieval meets modern, sang itself free. The three original flags of the Baltics had been outlawed with possession punishable by prison and torture. Swiftly, these flags—hidden inside walls and ovens for decades—began waving all over the country. The keynote battle-charge song, My Fatherland is My Love, has since become an unofficial national anthem.
We’re all hooked on songs. While in Estonia, I asked several street-strolling locals to sing for me, and true to form, they obliged. One woman sang the entire unofficial anthem as we stood on an empty sidewalk. This fallout of the Baltic Singing Revolution made me wonder, what would the U.S. choose if it needed a new anthem to sing its way out of a real jam? Won’t Back Down, Born in the USA, American Woman, Highway to Hell, Don’t Stop Believin’?
Healing conflict with music, now that’s a concept. Follow your melody.
∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
Estonia’s national bird is the barn swallow. It’s no pin-up like the bald eagle, nor a chart-busting singer—but, aptly, an agile survivor for all seasons.
“We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” —Willy Wonka
While many other Manhattan restaurants labor to reinvent themselves, it’s relaxing to slide back into basics at the upper east side’s TBAR Steak & Lounge—and that’s why it’s packed with in-the-know veteran New Yorkers. The one-page 40-item menu rolls out time-tested beauties debuting with appetizers including truffle rice balls (mushrooms, truffle oil) and salmon ceviche (lime, jalapeno, tequila). The bi-level 100-seat space has a chatty 10-seat bar and a dozen options to dine while beholding Third Avenue’s bustle. The career waiters (including philosophical Croatians) and the mature clientele ensure calm as you realize that although steaks drive this train, the menu isn’t mono-focused (Chilean sea bass, Crispy Long Island duck). That said, many filet mignons, NY strips, and prime aged angus burgers are celebrated. The flip side of the one-page menu highlights champagne, fine wines, and cocktails including the Manhattan 73 (Angels Envy whiskey, cherries, antica, vermouth, cherry herring). But you’re not done yet—desserts like the banana parfait mille feuilles (coconut, caramel sauce) and the chocolate sundae (brownie, cream, chocolate sauce) have a way of reviving your appetite. This place makes getting it right the first time look easy. Okay, now you’re done. TBAR Steak & Lounge, 1278 3rd Ave @73rd, 212-772-0404.
It’s tough enough for one lost man to ask for directions—tougher when four guys sail into the unknown.
Unexpected rewards for loyalty are divine. In the summer of 2005, I visited the off-limits island of Cuba. At the time, Fidel Castro was aged but still healthy and in power. I was the monthly travel columnist for The Improper Hamptonian, an amusing print magazine for Long Islanders. When the editor fled to start her own venture (Long Island Pulse), she invited me to write a similar column in her new magazine, which paid more. That is, only if I ceased writing for the other magazine.
I pleaded to write original columns for both publications, but the offer only stood if I cut my ties to the magazine in which I’d been a regular contributor for years. For maintaining my loyalty—I was the only columnist who did—the publisher off The Improper Hamptonian offered me a trip to Cuba by boat from the Florida Keys.
6:43p.m. Just off Cuba’s coast, as we’re scouring the shoreline for an inlet leading to a port, two huge boats race towards us.
6:44p.m. “Give us your keys,” they shout to our boat.
“Why?” I scream back. I’d never been mugged by pirates, so I dash below deck to stash valuables on my body. Back on deck, I can’t argue with the impatient, AK47-wielding crews on the steely larger boats flanking ours. Only one of the 20 guys on either boat wears anything resembling a uniform. Both boats have big cannons, and nobody is smiling. After a useless protest against surrendering the keys, I throw them the keys and the line they use to tow us into port. They then start “the investigation.”
7:28p.m. Waiting on the dock is a 50-person convoy of drug-sniffing dog handlers, scribbling policemen, brooding military personnel, doctors, interrogators, and interpreters. Welcome to Cuba!
Americans having to fly through Mexico, Canada, or elsewhere to visit the largest island in the Caribbean has always struck me as tedious. I wanted to conquer Cuba by boat, and The Improper Hamptonian publisher, Lenny, made it happen. For years, he had pondered venturing there with his father, Lenny, Sr., a retired steamfitter of merit who had previously traveled there by boat. Lenny, Jr., and I flew to Fort Lauderdale, boarded his dad’s 30-foot fishing boat, the Steamfitter, motored south and soon reaffirmed: The adventure begins when the plan fails.
Although our captain planned on docking near Havana, headwinds burned more gas than expected, so the straight line from Marathon Key, FL, led to the marina in Varadero, 80 miles east of Havana. As Cuban soil rose into view, we made several unsuccessful attempts to radio the marina. Roaming 100-yards offshore, hunting for the inlet, the only other boat we’d seen in Cuban waters was a dilapidated 120-foot rusty vessel that kept its distance but mimicked our movements. When we turned and approached them to ask directions, another rusting steel beast raced onto the scene, and our vacation went into shock, just as the sun began to sink into the ocean.
9 p.m.—until the moon finishes its slow arc across sky. They search and pick apart the boat, as I occasionally nap on the comfy wooden dock, using a pylon base as a pillow.
A team of quarantine doctors follow the drug-sniffing dogs.
“Anybody want a soda?” asks Lenny, Jr.
10:50p.m. A young female physician gives us full physicals. Using the pilot’s bench as an exam table, she probes our abdomens and wears an expression of deep concern. She suggests the captain keep his legs elevated, and returns later to retake his blood pressure.
1:33a.m. A technology expert steps on to the boat, gives us nods of confidence, and then completely dismantles each of our cell phones, taking ferocious notes about each part and their serial numbers. Spy stuff.
3:54a.m. I become keenly aware that several stone-faced men are photographing and filming the entire show because when the cameraman films part four of my nap, his camera light wakes me.
Tensions were spiking again between Cuba and America. The previous year, Bush and company sanctioned Swiss banks for the “laundering” of Cuban currency. Cuba’s retaliation, starting in 2004, outlawed the previously common U.S. dollar for all goods and services, switched to the Euro, and imposed a 20-percent fee for mandatory dollar conversions. And, Yanks arriving unannounced by boat also became a tad more problematic. Technically, while it’s not illegal for Americans to visit Cuba, U.S. law declares it illegal for them to spend U.S. dollars there.
6:16a.m. Detainment by Cuban Coast Guard and friends continues through sunrise.
6:17a.m. Emerging from a dream about missing a meal while in solitary confinement because my Spanish is rusty, I wonder aloud if we should call a lawyer. Lenny, nursing an imported Coke, winks, “Spending that quarter could multiply our legal problems.”
6:18a.m. “Ham sandwich, please,” says our captain. The Captain’s cryptic request dawns on me later. We have no food, only cases of beer and soda.
10a.m. Officials, in a variety of outfits ranging from medaled general to sly undercover detective, test-drive our boat for the second time.
11:11a.m. Undercover dude seats us outside the grilling office near the dock and formally permits us access to our bucket of beer and soda.
11:12a.m.—until the sun sets again. They interrogate us individually in a small windowless office. Using a Spanish-speaking quizzer with an interpreter, high-volume questions range from “Do you have any Cuban friends in the United States?” to “Have you ever been in trouble with the CIA?” Four other serious padre types look on without blinking. Thoughtfully, the interrogator skipped any real toughies, like, “Who is cooler, you, or your older brother?”
2p.m. Mildly panicked paranoia sets in. Cuban detention takes me back to the many hours I’d restlessly endured in my junior high school principal’s office. “We’re calling your parents,” I think I hear someone mumble in Spanish. Images of a $10,000 Uncle Sam fine and a year in prison swirl in my head.
3p.m. Every two hours, I peek back into the interrogation chamber—two olden computer printers busily chugging propaganda—to ask when we’ll be free to go enjoy their country’s famous tranquilizing rhythms. They maintain poker faces and predict a few more hours. “We’re checking with your government,” says the interpreter. Is he joking? If I’m here trading with the enemy, why the hell are you calling Washington? Am I going to become an international media example, exposing the flipside of the Cuban refugee boating issue?
4p.m. Revelation: It’s amazing that Cuba is only 90 miles from Florida, because the cultural differences fly in the face of proximity. I’ve visited hundreds of diverse cultures and seldom experienced such lifestyle variation in such a short distance. Typically, when I’m in travel-writer mode, I intentionally wander into bad neighborhoods to get the street beat in towns all over the world. On the other side of those tracks, I’m used to paranoid locals first screening me as possible DEA, FBI, CIA, or Immigration. It seems ironic to raise that intelligence antenna in Cuba when I’m actually attempting a vacation. Then again, remnants of the Cold War endure.
4:01p.m. I want my mom.
4:02p.m. “Gimme another ham sandwich.” —Captain’s code words for “Someone please deliver me another Miller Lite.”
7:05p.m. We’re still slumped in chairs outside the administrative cell as another sun sets. A Canadian boat dweller muses by and attempts to illustrate the bright side of Cuba’s militarized bureaucracy: “Thick bureaucracy, thin crime.”
7:15p.m. Our 24-hour detention concludes with an apology.
Lack of radio communication aside, we had no idea that our beachfront search for the inlet had raised red flags. Occasionally, speed boat mercenaries do storm beaches and ferry locals to Florida. And, some cell phones have GPS chips that could help navigate a rafting refugee seeking diplomatic immunity. Considering our phone dismantlings, you’d think they were hunting lasers. Who knows what else prompted their paranoia. Obviously, most Cubans can’t afford boats, but you also don’t see anybody in any sort of recreational floating devices near the beaches. The Cuban government discourages Cubans from floating on anything. It’s even illegal for foreign boat visitors to use the kayaks they’ve brought along; any craft could become a local’s ticket to a Dolphin’s game.
For sure, very few Americans storm their shores by sea, and their lawmen didn’t seem to have much going on otherwise. If it was an embargo formality, at least they now have a training video for ambushing and shaking down weekend warriors.
7:37p.m. Group discussion in a Havana-bound taxi cab. Perhaps the adage about men refusing to ask for directions when lost has merit—the rare moment when the four of us asked at once, the banana hit the fan.
11:25a.m. (one week later). On the boat ride back to Florida, we see only one other boat from afar as we cross from Cuban into international waters.
“Oh sh*t, is that the U.S. Coast guard?”…“Dump the cigars!”
Twenty-four-year-old owner Tommy from Milan is an easy-going restaurateur who declares only one rule inside his cozy, intimate dining room: “It’s a no prosecco zone.” This “red line” is drawn to showcase Franciacorta, a smooth, subtle Italian sparkling wine made via small batches (unlike mass-produced prosecco). This sets the stage for Da Tommy Osteria’s 60-seat getaway, offering high-end cuisine at bargain prices (no entree tops $29). The 10-person elbow-shaped bar, white brick walls, and random shelves of wine complete the owner’s authentic vision. An osteria is a woodier, more rustic trattoria where the root word is host, as in, you’re being hosted in someone’s home. Seventy-percent of the menu is vegetarian, which is a hit with the local Kosher crowd. Start with the Zucchini Cake and Parmesan Truffle Fondue or Grilled Octopus and Lemon Ricotta (a meaty white ‘sea sausage’ via Portugal). A celebrity chef designed the menu, taking it up a notch with fresh-made colorful pasta specialties led by scene-stealer Tonnarelli Cacio E Pepe (Roman Style Pasta, Pecornio, Black Pepper, $12!). The outstanding Branzino Al Forno (Pan Roasted Sea Bass, Capers, Olives, Vegetables) is served in a sturdy frying pan. This affordable feasting ground prides itself on only serving fine Italian wine and beer; the recommended Franciacorta is Contadiscastaldi Brut. Ps, the staff is Italian, so there will be no rushing here. Da Tommy Osteria, 14 Bedford St., Manhattan, New York, NY. 212-675-9080.
The problem with fences is, once built, you don’t know if you’re inside or outside. —Thoughts of a Kalahari Desert bushman, roughly translated.
In 2003, South Africa was a country in transition, and seemingly on track to begin reversing the atrocities forced upon its native people. After being whisked between South African wineries and safari lodges, I managed a border-crossing revelation.
The age-old ways of Africa’s Kalahari Desert Bush people, innately bound to their ancient ancestry, is vanishing. Traditionally, San Bushmen were expected to provide meat for their women, and the women were expected to gather roots, fruits, and herbs. Boys could get married by age 10, if they could bring home the meat. Women were initiated after puberty, and then stayed inside for four months before emerging to select a husband. If Mrs. judged Mr. a slacker, she could trade him in for another man.
This traditional way of life went up in smoke when white colonists assigned Kalahari tribes particular precincts. The bushmen had difficulty embracing private property and animal ownership. They were perplexed when they were arrested for hunting and eating cattle that were grazing on land their people used to inhabit and roam freely. But the bush winds have shifted again. In the late 1990s, South Africa’s president flew to a dusty squatter camp on the edge of the Kalahari and ceremoniously handed over to two bushmen leaders—likely having no idea they were in Botswana—the rights to their ancestral lands from which they had been evicted half a century before.
Bush people are shy and tend to keep their distance from non-familial groups. Surviving on hunted meat, edible insects, and wild fruits and vegetables is pretty much a thing of the past. Yet elements of their kinship structure remain, for instance, they don’t comprehend community and employment outside of their immediate families. I was told of instances where bush descendants went through months of job training, then after three months, just as they were approaching proficiency, they’d disappear and “give” the job to an untrained relative.
San Bushmen average 5’5” in height, and every face tells a story. Their natural rows of peppercorn hair, almond-shaped eyes, yellowish skin, and high cheekbones meld an attractive likeness found nowhere else on earth. I meandered with my bushman guide, Teeho, cresting endless parallel sand dunes that make up the epic Kalahari Desert’s wavy signature. In search of animal tracks and edible plants and bugs, we forged a path that eventually met a barrier, officially called the Veterinary Cordon Fence.
This 1,500-mile series of barriers, mostly five feet high, was built to separate wild animals from cattle ranches. Unfortunately, it impedes natural migration routes and prevents animals and bushmen from reaching water when routine water holes go dry.
Teeho set his hand on the fence, fell silent, and peered through it like a savant conducting valuable research despite scant resources. He whispered a native word that sounded to me like he way saying phish-stok. I stared through the fence, eyeing only desert sand and brush. He peeked my way and said it again, then began pacing alongside the fence. He sauntered back and forth several times, trading his glance between me and the “property” on the other side of the fence.
Later, back on my own in a lodge 50 miles away, I tried various spellings and pronunciations of the native tongue to crack Teeho’s code. A notable feature of bushmen is their use of the so-called “click” consonants, produced by drawing air into the mouth and clicking the tongue. Because conventional spellings can’t represent these sounds, I tried an assortment of imitations. A minute later, a local sitting at the end of the bar chimed in, “Means lion.”
Before the sun rose, lying on my back gazing at southern constellations, the significance of Teeho’s message came to light. As he stared through slats in that fence—the symbol of the private property alienating his people—he imitated a detained lion pacing back and forth the way caged animals do in zoos the world over. Imprisoned people do it too.
∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
If someone else’s barricades confine you, don’t surrender the lesson connected to it. Unsettling things happen. Move on. For lucky animals, and a few lingering migratory people, staying really means having the freedom to go. The handful of nomads, human and otherwise, wandering across an increasingly partitioned planet must rely on strong instincts to endure. It’s okay to struggle, and occasionally slip, on the path you know is right.
∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
“It’s all about free will.” —Prophecy suggested to young traveler entering Zambia … “Is Will okay?” —Rookie traveler’s reply
“The moment the slave resolves that he will no longer be a slave, his fetters fall. He frees himself and shows the way to others. Freedom and slavery are mental states.” —Mahatma Gandhi
(excerpt from The Directions to Happiness: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons)
Water can be habit-forming.
Many vacationers peer over the rim of the Grand Canyon into its overwhelming river gorge, gasp, and then return to their cars to hunt for a burger. After doing just that, I returned years later to explore the guts of the God of all Gullies on a 150-mile rafting trip. Even when you’re a mile deep in the earth’s reddish crust on a raft drifting the length of this colossal culvert, you can’t escape sibling rivalry and city-slicker spite. Down there, the Colorado River has gargantuan whitewater that delineates life or death if played wrong. One set of rapids—really an angry waterfall—forever changed my inner tide.
Joining my brother Basil and his posse of Idaho rancher pals on day three of a 21-day private trip, I hiked down from the canyon’s south rim in the dark and found myself waiting by the river until they floated by the sandbar upon which I stood. I smelled the motley crew, most of whom run a few hardcore rivers every year, before I saw them. I was a New York City whitewater rafting rookie joining a bonded posse way after pecking orders had been established. Needless to say, finding training time to navigate rapids on my own wasn’t easy. Wanting to make sure I made the most of the experience, Basil committed me to a secret challenge before I arrived. This was typical and in the spirit of our childhood dares. After all, he was the one who familiarized me with suburban delinquency and shoplifting patchouli-scented candles years before my peers were allowed to cross streets by themselves. This test was rowing a raft solo over Lava Falls, the most dangerous stretch of the river and one of the country’s most difficult navigable rapids. I had about two weeks to train for it. Initially, a set of oars in my fists made my raft no more versatile than a buoy.
To prepare, I stole training time on the raft in the evenings while everyone else was enjoying happy hour after breaking camp on random sandy beaches. I spent most of this time spinning the boat with sharp alternating paddle movements in one direction and then suddenly turning it in the opposite direction. Every evening, I’d go out and twirl myself into a sweat, which made Basil’s Idaho cohorts chuckle about how the city boy needed to find his gym. By day, the brotherly dynamics of being taught how to run unforgiving rapids involved much screaming and frequent reminders of how expensive it is to repair a smashed boat. There was also a repeating bit about how pissed-off our parents would be if I died.
As the days in this geologic miracle passed, I began navigating ripples and smaller rapids. Basil and I shared a tent where we talked about the looming challenge every night until we fell asleep. He decided not to tell anyone else in the group about our secret until the morning of Lava Falls for fear they’d vote the idea down. There was no escaping my city-folk pigeonhole.
When the day arrived, half of the crew was unsupportive of the idea of my solo run. After I agreed to pay for any damages to the raft, it was stripped of everything except the oars, and I was finally given a green light. This gamble would not have been possible on a commercially organized trip, which is propelled by boat engines and signed waivers. Everyone scouted the waterfall from a nearby cliff, and one by one four rafts and three kayakers plunged into the roaring drop. One raft capsized and two others narrowly missed being sucked into the water tornado big enough to swallow a bus.
With a look I hadn’t seen in years, Basil patted me on the waist and then floated away on the fifth raft. I scouted my route over Lava Falls’s millions of gallons-per-minute froth, which helped center me with an adrenaline rush I only remember from the minutes before a wrestling match. It was the sort of anticipation that sets nausea butterflies free in your stomach. I hiked upstream on the trail toward the raft, discovering a series of large, surly, black ravens standing on the riverbank’s boulders and peering at me with tilted heads. I passed one after another, until it seemed I hadn’t yet earned a pass from the scavenger review board. Farther afield, I noticed that a pack of bighorn desert sheep had stopped chewing the brush to gaze my way. When I reached the stripped-down boat, a final raven sat on its inflated rim, staring at me gloomily. It slowly cocked its head from side to side. Losing the ability to maintain an internal dialogue, I swallowed hard and realized there was no turning back.
Trembling like a nudist in a snowstorm, I boarded the raft. It was then that the sound of my heart exploding in my ears overtook the thunder of the misting downstream mayhem. Accelerating toward the rim of the cliff, my panic was ultimately subdued by a strange quieting. This was, after all, a dare. I did my best to hit the mark everyone recommended, but drifted left of center, which, after an initial weightless freefall, meant dancing on the rim of that dreaded all-encompassing whirlpool. Balancing on the rim, I rowed furiously while a blinding froth battered my face. Stuck between heaven and hell, I heard the guttural choking sounds of the vortex trying to consume me. I hoped I was rowing in the right direction. Then, time stood still until I spun the raft and was spit out of the mammoth eddy to cleanly run the lower rapids. The deafening jet-engine roar of the plummet subsided, and I docked downstream. The crowd’s reaction was mixed. It seemed that a few of the cowboys were disappointed I hadn’t flipped. Basil, on the other hand, was validated. We strolled out of sight to celebrate privately. Brotherhood.
Aside from chasing women, the river trench cutting a mile into the parched Arizona desert reset my bar for testing Mother Nature’s wrath. It also made me rethink the trials we choose. The worthiest competitions are sometimes an inner journey with ourselves. The red sand embedded in my hair, ears, clothes, and gear followed me for a month after this voyage. The call of Lava Falls and that black raven’s gaze still do.
As a long-time Manhattanite, I typically loathe Midtown’s near-constant chaos. But, West 36th Street’s Executive Hotel Le Soleil New York initiated my ceasefire with this part of NYC. An instant classic celebrating a bygone era of charm, this Fashion District newcomer welcomes in-the-know business travelers, savvy holidaymakers, and pets.
Each one of the sensually pleasing 162 rooms (including three twentieth-floor penthouse suites) go above-and-beyond the style of the traditional luxury boutique hotels with furniture designed by local and European artisans that accent rich fabrics, chrome, and glass. The Couture Penthouse Suite has a full kitchen, dining and living area, an office, two separate bedrooms, and an outdoor terrace with a fireplace, and sweeping views of the Empire State Building and Freedom Tower. Many of the sleek-design luxurious hotel’s upper floors have amazing skyline views—every room has floor-to-ceiling windows. Here, I had a rare uninterrupted night of sleep in this crazy city.
All rooms contain custom-designed furniture, plush beds with luxurious bedding, fluffy bathrobes and slippers, a 43” flat-screen TV with cable, tempting mini bar, spacious work desk, audio docking station, cordless bedside phone, stylish coffee maker, umbrella, hairdryer, an electronic safe, and a morning newspaper. All of the bathrooms are adorned with marble countertops and feature ultra-fancy Italian-made bath products.
The impeccable attention given to guests by the hotel’s staff is praiseworthy, and seems genuine. Le Soleil also offers a helicopter ride package. Adjacent to the lobby, street-side Trademark Grind boutique coffee bar fronts and cleverly hides Trademark Taste, a revived speakeasy cum delicious dining hideaway. The 80-seat restaurant offers hand-crafted cocktails along with comfort food and homemade pastries. 38 W 36th St, New York. 212.685.2181.
One Community for Sustainability
“Our region is characterized by coopetition—a cooperative, collaborative decision by all players to compete with each other so that the world will choose the region before choosing the country.” —Philippine Minister of Tourism Ramon R. Jimenez, Jr.
The idea of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts is not lost on Southeast Asia. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is an organization comparable to the European Union with its enduring effort to achieve regional solidarity. Manila (Philippines) will host the 35th annual ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) this January 19-22. This year’s theme is ASEAN–One Community for Sustainability.
Since its inauguration in 1981, the annual ATF rotates alphabetically through its 10 member-countries with a total of 570 million people—Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Russia had been ASEAN’s fastest growing tourism market, but the Russian financial collapse has evaporated those inbound numbers.
The tourist appeal fusion of Southeast Asia’s 10 countries and their amazingly varied cultures poses several challenges, one of which is its diversity. ASEAN members range from wealthy Singapore and Brunei to agrarian Laos and Cambodia. Politics also run the spectrum, from the democratic Philippines, which is largely Christian, Indonesia, which encompasses the world’s largest Muslim population—and, until now, a sometimes difficult to access Myanmar.
This forum is ultra-focused on how its member countries can work together to market themselves as one destination. Philippine Tourism Secretary/Minister Jimenez notes, “Our countries become, in very real terms, each other’s value extension—we become each other’s developing markets. And to make this development last for our children, we have to make certain that we are mindful of the social and environmental context that our region’s growth exists in.”
News from the ATF 2015 (held in Myanmar)…
ATF 2015 attracted 1,500 attendees from more than 40 countries, including tourism ministers, ASEAN exhibitors, international buyers, and international and local media.
BRUNEI is a handy gateway to remarkable Borneo. The last Malay Kingdom celebrates its options to play golf or polo, dive, or relax in a plush resort. Brunei’s quest to draw curiosity from western travelers to Borneo is reflected by its complete overhaul and expansion of its international airport. While under 10,000 Americans visit Brunei each year, it is rich in rainforest and mountain terrain that could be very attractive to adventure travelers. It is also working to promote itself as a dive destination thanks to an abundance of mint-condition shipwrecks.
CAMBODIA has discussed building a new road to Angkor Wat, but talks have been tabled for the time being. The dispute is that it would increase the number of day trips and cut down on overnight stays at Angkor Wat, weaken the economy and potentially degrade the ruins. “Overnight stays at Angkor Wat are very good for the tourism and local economy,” Dr. Thong Khon, the tourism minister, said. Cambodia now partners with Thailand for a single visa option. The symbolic Kingdom of Wonder campaign remains an enduring symbol of Southeast Asia’s incredible history. Here, white gold equals rice while green gold equals tourism.
INDONESIA: Cruises of Indonesia’s huge archipelago are beginning to become more popular, exposing the country’s beautiful coastline outside of Bali, the only destination most Americans visit. Indonesia’s presence on Borneo is often also overshadowed by Bali, making it perhaps one of the best kept secrets in Southeast Asia. Despite a few political setbacks, tourism numbers continue growing as the country offers incredible cultural and geographic diversity.
LAOS is undergoing major infrastructure developments that will soon change the face of this hospitable country. The “Jewel of the Mekong” continues a sustained effort to support soft tourism and local immersion. The big news out of Laos is its commitment to improving the roads and transportation infrastructure, allowing tourists to move easily throughout the country without flying. It is also upgrading all four of its international airports – Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Pakse, and Savannakhet. Luang Prabang continues to be one of the main draws for western travelers, and Laos is hoping that places like Vang Vieng evolve from backpacker hangouts to upscale destinations.
MALAYSIA: This is another year of festivals in Malaysia, with over 50 events happening throughout the country. A highlight is the Rainforest World Music Festival. The Malaysia Truly Asia campaign continues showcasing the best of its mixed native, Malay, Chinese, and Indian heritage.
MYANMAR: In 2015, ATF was held in Myanmar for the first time. Tourism continues to grow at an amazing rate, breaking 3 million visitors in 2014 (another exponential year-to-year increase) after welcoming only 1 million in 2012. 2015 could possibly see 5 million tourist arrivals—book ahead! The country is working to improve transit, road conditions, and flight options. Yangon, Lake Inle, Mandalay, and Bagan are currently the main attractions, but as the country continues to open up, other regions will no doubt catch on. One area in particular is the Chin State, which dropped its strict entry requirements this year. I can testify that the online tourist e-visa (evisa.moip.gov.mm $50) and business visa on arrival ($40) both work.
PHILIPPINES: The US remains its second largest market, the first being South Korea—one out of four tourists here are Korean. Philippine Airlines announced that it will begin a direct flight from New York (JFK) to Manila on March 15th. Many of the Philippines’ 7,017 islands share some form of American-influenced musical, religious, and Hollywood traditions, hence its tourism slogan, It’s More Fun in The Philippines.
SINGAPORE: One of the country’s largest projects is a hi-speed railway link to Kuala Lumpur, with an aim to eventually extend through Thailand to Kunming, China. While that plan develops, things remain busy on the homefront. This year marks the country’s 50th birthday, and it will celebrate with a number of openings, including the National Gallery and the Pinacotheque de Paris Art Museum. Last year, it opened a Chinatown street market that has proved to be very popular with locals and tourists.
THAILAND: Protests continue to plague Bangkok, and Thailand is using it as an opportunity to promote more of the regions outside its capital city. At the moment, westerns typically stick to Bangkok and the southern beaches, but those seeking an experience outside of the party tourist track should look into Loei in the north and Buri Ram in the east. The Amazing Thailand brand (reinvented this year as Thainess) continues setting the example for tourism in Southeast Asia with growing golf and health/wellness sectors. The country is considering waiving its tourist visa fees, but not its exotic culture of service.
VIETNAM: The popular yet hard-to-reach Northern Highlands of Vietnam are now more accessible thanks to a new road from Hanoi to Sapa that halves the travel time between Hanoi and Lao Cai to only 3.5 hours. Vietnam continues trying to simplify its visa policy, which recently doubled in price. A French Imperial twist continues fanning its hidden charms.
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Tourism encourages human connectivity—one of the key strategies towards ultimately achieving the ASEAN community. Peter Semone, Chief Technical Adviser for the Lao National Institute of Tourism and Hospitality (Lanith) adds to this notion: “Reaching towards greater sustainability in tourism is paramount to our future and there is no better time than the present to create a community led movement to achieve these goals. The freshly minted Sustainable Development Goals will lead the international community development agenda, while the new ASEAN Economic Community will provide unity among ASEAN member countries. One must not forget that these initiatives must translate into the local context if lasting sustainability measures are to be accomplished.”
A goldmine for business and leisure traveler news and forecasts, speakers included Green Recognition Award winners and homestay program pioneers. Also, press conferences led by tourism ministers from member countries create buzz about plans for a single or no-visa policy for the entire region, as this visa-free tourism strategy will help create an ideal single destination.
ASEAN cohesion emphasizes partnerships rather than competition. Tourism Ministers continue developing a mutual recognition agreement aimed to improve the quality of human resources and giving workers in the tourism sectors of member countries a chance to work in other countries. A single market free-trade agreement is another goal of the association. Until December 2008, the 40-year-old organization had no written constitution. The new charter sets a 2016 goal for establishing economic integration via a 10-country free-trade zone and established commitments respecting human rights, democratic principles, and keeping the region free of nuclear weapons. Binding the 10 members to an enhanced legal framework, the regional charter sets out their shared aims and methods of working together.
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For more information visit ATF Philippines. ATF 2017 will be Singapore.
Nobody gossips about virtue.
A mopey, well-fed stray hound strolls by and faintly sniffs me. I’m leaning against an impromptu beer truck on the fringe of a resort area on the Caribbean island of Grenada while distant Calypso music fills the barbequed night air. I’m fishing for West Indian gossip from the middle-aged guy whom I just gifted another icy brew. He grins and announces the same thing four times, as his songlike accent is lost on me until a fourth translation: “Who have cocoa in sun, look out for rain.” This Grenadian proverb suggests minding your own business—as in, it takes six consecutive days to sun-dry cocoa beans, so pay attention to the weather instead of trivial matters. The mellow dog takes the cue and moseys elsewhere, but I stick around.
This lively traffic circle near Grand Anse beach borders a makeshift outdoor marketplace sarcastically named “Wall Street” because the strip-mall parking area is bookended by banks. Along with being a mini-bus hub, the circle attracts locals who gather to buy open-air grilled meat and drink beverages sold from ice chests in pickup beds. At night, cars blare music, creating instant parties. Unlike other over-priced Caribbean islands that are designed so tourists rarely meet non-resort personnel, here I’m dancing in a parking lot with grandmothers, sipping bargain brew.
Strolling away from Wall Street, I follow the sound of steel drums into a palm-tree surrounded auditorium to behold a showcase of senior Calypso musicians. It sounds happy, so I wonder why 500 fans are calmly seated. I find out that Calypso, a West Indies invention, is “listening music” that doubles as delivery for satire and political commentary. Now I understand why the concert-goers are chuckling more than foot-tapping. At this point, I still have no idea how passionate these folks are about their history and politics. A woman looks away from the stage and smiles at me. I’m going to like it here.
Spice Island is an apt metaphor, as all races blend here. Children don’t speak about black or white skin, rather brown or peach skin. I stumble upon a new definition for relativity after meeting several men in my age bracket whose fathers had 10 or more offspring, sometimes with as many women. With so many folks related on this small island, everyone knowing each other keeps things safe. Also keeping the peace is their attachment to British Colonial law. One must bow to a picture of the Queen when entering a court. And if you swear, it’s not hard to land there. Locals call this a “church state” because cursing within earshot of a cop can warrant an arrest.
A long way from church, I step out onto the beach and wander down to a seaside bar. Nuggets of Grenadian folklore fly at me from every direction. As the sun dips into the water, the wave-crashing soundtrack is competing with singing frogs—a tiny newt-like chorus that sounds like an army of loud piccolos. The bartender leans forward to tell me something arriving via “tele-Grenadian” (meaning, gossip spreads fast here). “Don’t let the sun go down on it,” he adds, urging everyone there to solve problems with loved ones quickly. There’s just something about getting good advice when you’re barefoot.
I hail a cab wanting to be delivered to a popular dance joint. My plans rapidly change, however, when my taxi driver pulls over. Also a recreation advisor, Keith gives the bar I’m heading to a thumbs-down and redirects us to a local joint where the upbeat Soca music takes center stage and gets Grenadians up and bouncing. They call it whining, pronounced why-ning, a carnal dance demonstration I first witnessed in
Five hours later, I ask Keith, “What time is it?” “GMT,” he replies (Grenada Maybe Time).
The nutmeg on Grenada’s flag is telling, as it’s used to flavor many local dishes and heralded to cure everything from colds to infidelity. Taxi talent Keith and I share a few meals in local joints. The national dish is called oil down, namesaked by the coconut-milk oil residue that infuses the one-pot stew of breadfruit, callaloo, okra, cabbage, fish, dumplings, turmeric, and whatever else is on hand. While graduating from a heaping plate of oil down to brew, two schoolgirls in uniform sit across from us. Keith advises them, “Boys and books don’t agree.”
A few days later, Keith drops me off at the airport. As I walk away from his car, he reminds me, “What you miss ain’t pass you.” His way of saying, don’t worry about anything, it’s coming either way. He then retells me that copasetic is a Grenadian word.
A bad attitude is a disability. —Grenadian cabbie Keith
What a difference a walk makes.
Long-distance walking veterans, my father and I tackled the renowned 240-mile, coast-to-coast trek across Northern England’s rugged terrain in 1996. Two years later, shortly after dad endured life-saving surgery, we tackled Offa’s Dyke, a 200-mile long wall built in the eighth century to keep the Welsh on their side of that giant fence.
On our third walk across the Commonwealth, my father, then 76, and I rambled the width of England’s Cotswolds region, a country paradise defined by enchanting drystone walls dating back hundreds of years. The region has a woolspun history and is picture-postcard flawless. And, one benefit of undertaking an exhausting itinerary is that it left us no energy to recycle any debates about my tenth-grade car-crashing spree.
The Romans laid out this part of Europe in ten-acre plots. Don’t dare suggest it was the French. Today, these plots have matured into showcases of a fading way of life. These serene river valleys of sheep pens on soft rolling hills with limestone buildings and outcroppings remain out of harm’s way from developers. It endures as a haven of trout-filled streams, quaint stone hamlets, stone walls, and romping horses.
Unfolding our map and our sense of humor ensured that we had a grand time losing our bearings, never a long way from a stone wall or a friendly character. Our route from Burford to Stow-on-the-Wold started on a forgotten, car-free single-lane road that visited woods, farms, cottages with window-sill flower boxes, tiny medieval stone villages, bounteous wildflowers, and rare fellow walkers. Roaming 10 to 20 miles per day, sort of with a plan, we slept in archetypal English inns. Predictably, these accommodations were made of stone with low-overhead medieval-era doorways. We become aware of separate hot and cold water faucets, uber-creaky stairs, and twin beds so short that our feet were left dangling.
On the trail, my ears adjusted from urban car horns to ewe-speak. The footpath broke into farms divided by stiles; turnstile gates allowing ramblers to pass but not livestock. Dad had no trouble covering our daily distances, or hurdling the older five-foot-high wooden stiles.
Minutes before sunset, we encountered a stone wall and the man working to preserve it. Today’s stone-wall builders preserve an ancient tradition that both pays the bills and safeguards the Isles’ uncommon landscape. The hardworking stone mason, a chap with meaty hands, massive forearms, and steady phrasing, assured us his art form couldn’t be mechanized. A dry stone wall uses no mortar, only limestones, gravity, friction, and a talent for made-to-last jigsaw puzzles. A symbol of national pride, this typically inherited craft merits prestige; wall building is to Britain what gourmet cooking is to France.
Dry stonewall architects obsess about their materials, describing shades of limestone as passionately as interior designers might salute skylights. They wax eloquent about subtle hues from specific quarries, renowned builders who left unmistakable signatures, and how an able mason can dismantle and rebuild—stone by stone—an identical wall. Like radiance passing through a prism, stone walls share ancestry and imagination.
As the sun set behind us, the wall builder chuckled, “The last ramblers passing this way asked me ‘What I made building walls’…and I told them I make people heave a sigh.”
Dad then asked about optimum stone sizes and which stone position in the wall was the most vital for longevity. The Englishman rested a hand on the wall, looked at the ground, and then slowly raised his head to trace his eyes along a mile of accomplished stonework behind him. Turning his glance my way—but slyly gesturing at my father—he mused, “Just don’t pull that card, or the whole thing collapses!” After that wily epiphany and another chuckle, my dad and I trekked on.
On our final day, we strolled through a retired nobleman’s digs with miles of hilly lawns and well-spaced chestnut oak trees, some 800-years-old with trunks having 24-foot circumferences. We paused at a 13th-century water mill and agreed that we were in an outdoor museum. In the final mile, we climbed a steep ridge near a two-house settlement that wound past friendly miniature ponies, another hundred sheep, and led to a bench set on the high point.
I sat on the bench and watched as my dad walked slowly with a slight limp up the steep path toward me. He was puffing a bit, scaling a mountain once summited by Alexander Cromwell. I thought again about the cunning dry-stone wall builder who had said—speaking about his wall’s hidden power—but also I think in retrospect, about parents everywhere…
“What you don’t see is the strength of the wall.”
It was then that I vowed to keep discovering the charms of life with my dad—that vital card in my familial deck and a stone wall of love—one step at a time.
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“Wallers do it in all weathers.” —Drystone Waller’s credo on a bumper sticker
(from: THE DIRECTIONS TO HAPPINESS: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons)
The detour is the journey.
We all start somewhere—love it or leave it. If I could blitz the U.S. with air-dropped leaflets, they would urge: Pack a small bag, march outside, wander into a different neighborhood, ask strangers fun questions. Faithfully beholding this tactic—anywhere and everywhere—turned most of my life into a working vacation. First, I had to wrestle the establishment to learn a few lessons about freedom.
My first income involved petty theft. As an eight-year-old living across the street from the Hempstead, Long Island golf course driving range, I was motivated by the pro shops’ return policy, which netted a nickel per ball. The pilfering ring began with me coaxing balls through the fence using a long stick. The scheme matured into fence-hopping sprints onto the driving range to load as many balls as possible into the belly of my shirt and then bounding back over the rusted eight-foot chainlink fence using the free arm not securing the loot. Older brother initiations aside, this midday one-armed banditry delivered my earliest adrenaline rushes.
Ball burglary was only a symptom of the recreational terrorism my two older brothers and I routinely enjoyed inside those suburban-liberating golf course fences. We’d camp overnight, buried deep in the courses’ leaf piles, sled year-round on any slope, and spend hours clinging to soaring treetops. In an early stride toward independence, I constructed and maintained my own treehouse in a lumbering white pine to spy on a sport I’d never fancy, except as a caddy.
When the dreaded greenskeeper, Tony Matueza, finally captured me red-handed snatching balls on the driving range, he drove me in his supply-laden golf cart onto the street and into my driveway. As we walked up to my front door, his chunky claw still clutching my arm, he threatened, “You’re in a world of trouble.” After citing abundant crimes to my mother, he remanded me to her custody and left me to ponder a troubled planet.
Skip to now, as the news media continue fanning that world-of-trouble myth (my mom let me off the hook and didn’t tell dad), my worldwide search for guidance reconfirmed that we actually reside on a very friendly planet. Tony was wrong.
Don’t let blanket travel warnings, the bruising 24-hour news cycle, and other implanted delusions limit your scope of the world. Heed the common sense revealed by unlikely sages in faraway places and just down the road from you. Detour away from ill-advised gloom and the scorn of crotchety pessimists. It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.
Grace over race.
I’m sitting outside on a mini stool in northern Cambodia where my bent knees don’t fit under the table. A three-course meal arrives from the nearby food stall—a hard-boiled egg served as a delicacy with three additional finger bowls presenting spices, limes, and mint. Egg vendor #7, Chantheaea, giggles when she returns with a tiny long-handle spoon. Meanwhile, I watch two guys, Narit and Ponlok, shoot it out on a makeshift outdoor pool table. This jungle-encased village, Cheabb, probably won’t see electricity in the lifetime of these two pool sharks. Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, has just built its first shopping mall with an escalator that has become an instant tourist attraction. I realize later that Chantheaea was chuckling about my inside-out T-shirt. I haven’t passed a mirror in weeks.
I’ve flown 15,000 miles by plane, over-nighted on a bench of a chugging riverboat, spent a day in the dusty cab of a puny Japanese pickup crammed with 10 riders, and then 10 hours on a wobbling motorbike sputtering on rutted, meandering jungle trails. The trail, barely worthy of foot traffic, frequently requires crossing rivers on slimy log bridges. It becomes impassable during the wet season.
My brother Basil and I were repeatedly warned not to venture into this isolated region that’s supposedly rife with landmines and holdups by teams of bandits. However, our reward for forging ahead was a spontaneous night that fused a wedding and a bizarre theater odyssey. The first thing we saw in Cheabb was a mobile PA system announcing what later turned out to be a play. The PA system involved two guys on a motorbike rigged with a large horn on the handlebars connected to an amplifier sitting in the drivers lap. The rear passenger held a mike to a Walkman that made the announcements.
In this off-the-grid destination, the wooden box houses are raised on six-foot stilts. In the shade below, black buffalo, pigs, and chickens reside. The people, mostly rice farmers, steal naps in hammocks slung between stilts under the houses or between the trees. Everyone we pass waves hello. My hunch is that once war-ravaged, perpetually destitute Cambodia had a lighter side, and I wasn’t quitting until we found it. Landmines, civil war, and genocide dominate many associations with Cambodia, but life has returned to a new version of normal, even in Preah Vihear Province, one of the poorest and most isolated.
There’s no way for an outsider to know they’re crossing between the neighboring villages of Cheabb Lech and Cheabb Kart (Cheabb east and west). But that’s where we were invited into the soul of this village with zero tourism. In one magical night, we attended a wedding reception, which later segued into an outdoor theater performance, and then slept on the top cop’s porch.
The wedding highlights included proud toasts ladled from a 35-gallon jug of homemade milky-fermented booze, dancing to insanely loud Cambodian pop, eating bugs, and listening to the best man speech in which he noted that the bride’s premiere hobby was jumping rope. The groom, dressed in a frumpy, oversized suit, couldn’t stop snickering during the should-be solemn slow dances. Our go-to-guy, the only one in town who could speak English, told us about the local pothead, a little girl who wears a red cooking pot as a hat.
After the wedding reception, the group marched across town to join 200 people already seated on the ground before a stage that was amplified by a lone microphone hanging from a wire. The wooden stage set was draped in billowing, silky tarps. The performance, hours and hours of short bits, were punctuated by the manual closing of a dainty pink curtain. A flash photo (Basil’s) started a tizzy that startled the entire audience and made actors modify their act and speak in even higher pitched voices.
Where there are no televisions, traveling troupes are still the stars. Within the crowd, several campfires were maintained to combat the 70-degree winter chill. At one point during the six-hour Khmer epic play, half of the audience suddenly stood up and gasped—a reverse domino effect that didn’t seem like a standing ovation. It wasn’t. A six-foot-long heat-seeking venomous snake had crawled into the audience. Once the snake was hacked in half by someone who happened to have a machete handy, the show resumed. Basil suggested that the snake’s demise might be a metaphor for what happens here when someone threatens married life.
After the marathon performance, we feasted with the wedding gang, but passed on the cow stomach and dried blood patties that resembled black tofu cakes. After waking up on the hospitable police chief’s front porch, we visited several schools, all raised 12×12-foot platforms either under a home or outside covered by tarps. The blackboards were black paint on flat boards and the instructional guides were laminated posters, one for math and one for language. After Basil donated hordes of pens and notebooks to these makeshift schools, he also stepped in as interim teacher, which routinely inspired more laughter than learning.
Despite the forewarnings about landmines and holdups, we ventured to Cheabb where the people, like most Cambodians, exemplify warmth, grace, and pride, which is incredible when considering the unspeakable horrors many of them have endured in their lifetime. In these more prosperous times, some still manage to survive on one dollar and 1,000 calories per day. The Khmer capacity to overcome extreme adversity and still welcome unannounced travelers with smiles and respect is humanity. Being the first foreigners to visit a place where they’ve never seen any is a traveler’s cliché—but when you unearth the last remnants of virgin turf in Southeast Asia, dignity and joy is what you’ll find.
As my brother and I prepared to roll out of Cheabb, we enjoyed a final hard-boiled egg at the food stall. The newly married couple rode past and waved to us and all of the food stall workers. They were honeymoon bound—a visit to the other side of the village—which made the staff cheer wildly. That’s when it dawned on us that the bride was #7, our previous egg vendor, Chantheaea.