Archive for the ‘historical fiction’ Category

Cambodia travels:On the road to Siem Reap and more..

May 3, 2013

The ride to Siem Reap is along the Tonle Sap river and would end up close to the Tonle Sap Lake. We are going northwest. Battambang, considered to the ‘colonial gem’ of Cambodia (and once a part of Thailand) is further west and south west of Siem Reap.”Seim Reap” in Khmer means Siam defeated, and Siam was the old name for Thailand!Apparently Thailand wanted to claim the Angkor Wat temples as theirs. It is amazing that such a name has survived all these years.077084073After the initial stoppings to eat and shop or use the restrooms, the bus driver keeps on driving and I am eager to look in my tour guide book to place where we are on the map.  The whole bus is nodding off but I am not sleepy. I decide to look outside. I notice houses on stilts and ask Sol about it. “We have very heavy rains here and the land gets flooded, so people here build their houses so it is high off the ground” he says. I notice something else that is quite charming. Every village we pass has an entrance like a gateway. Some are more elaborate than others. The Cambodians like to adorn their small quiet villages. I love looking outside and watching the people and their world. I am reminded of parts of India, especially rural India.We pass a big city, Kompong Khleang with shops and automotive repair shops and lots and lots of cement and clay figurines.  I see signs for Dam Dek and know we are close to our destination.

Soon we are speeding through the city and outside the city limits we get to our hotel, The Frangipani.  Sol gives us an hour to check in and says he will be back to take us to one of the temple complexes today.  The hotel has a beautiful garden and we slowly trudge our way to the rooms and deposit the luggage. The sun is bright and I feel warm and sleepy.

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Cambodia travels: Le Lotus Blanc and on the road to Siem Reap

April 25, 2013

069 070 071066That afternoon we stop at Le  Lotus Blanc (The White Lotus) for lunch.  This is an NGO  run by the French and has a store as well where they sell products like clothes,bags made by destitute children and some of their parents. We are  requested to first go to the store area and watch a video.  After the genocide, when several charitable organizations entered the country in the early 80s, they found children living on trash heaps.  Some of these children were rescued by a French NGO called Pour  un Sourire d’Enfant  ( For the smile of a child) and this center was started where the children were sent to school and also trained to work in the adjoining restaurant.  I look at the bags and scarves and pick up  a few; one of my cousins buys an outfit for her daughter. After half an hour we walk to the restaurant next door.  The whole place looks beautiful with a lovely garden and blooming flowers outside.

This is another beautiful sunny day and the smiling faces of the young gentlemen serving us lunch warms us up. The morning mood slowly lifts from our faces. First they serve us a thick squash soup and follow it up with some excellent fish with vegetables.  The young servers speak halting English but their smiles and demeanor  win us over. We hang around in the gardens after eating and then it is time to get back to our hotel.

Today will be our last day here and then we  leave early morning for Siem Reap to see the famous Angkor Wat temples. We rest for awhile and then the avid shoppers want to spend time looking around. So we all go to the central market area in the tuk tuks. I am struck by the beautiful flowers in the market area and we walk around. I find another NGO shop selling stuffed animals made out of cloth. I buy a cute looking rat  and my cousin buys an octopus. We decide to have a simple dinner at one of the riverfront cafes. Lunch was heavy so a simple soup is enough and we go back to the hotel.

Early morning, Sol is ready with the van and driver.  We have a quick breakfast, check out of the hotel and get on the road. We stop first to buy, corn and a lovely purple fruit called milk fruit.  The vendors are right on the side of the road, like they sell in India and Sri Lanka. One of my cousins has an endless supply of snacks so with the fruit , corn and snacks we fill ourselves. We stop at a big shopping open market to use the restrooms. I am shocked and fascinated to see the women selling spiced and fried insects!  The are also selling big sized melons that look like overgrown cucumbers.We pick up some pineapple and coconut water and get back on the road.

Cambodia travels: the killing fields

April 16, 2013

063064After the boat ride it is time to get back to the hotel where one of my cousins, Meena, has just arrived to join us. She is tired and needs to eat something so the two of us come down for lunch.( actually a second lunch for me!) We eat this amazing soup, she has a vegetable soup and I have one with shrimp, unbelievable! I feel I can live here just for the food and keep gaining weight as well.

Meena is a shopper and she leaves with the others while I read a book in my room. Some have gone shopping and two have gone for massages.  Apparently, massages are very popular tourist draws here. I come down to see this straight-backed woman playing a lute-like instrument in the lobby. She seems to be playing it in a minor scale and sounds sad . But her face is expressionless and rigid. I think she has been there for several hours, how boring and tiring for her ( and for some of us!)

We have decided to eat out tonight.  We take the tuk tuks which look very different from the three-wheelers called autos in India. Here you have two wooden planks with cushions facing each other, so four people can sit comfortably.  One of my cousins walks slowly since his accident several years ago and he accompanies us in the tuk-tuk. We go to a place called The cantina and have authentic, home-made Mexican food. The tostadas look like they were hand-made and the cheese, though not Mexican, is light The tostada is loaded with lots of cole slaw and a lovely verde and hot sauce. With drinks the bill comes to less than $25! Now my whole family decides they can live in this country.

The next morning Sol says we are going to see the killing fields and the Tuol Sleng museum.  I brace myself for the horrors that started the1975 genocide in Cambodia.  We first go to the museum, which was once a school and was later  converted into a holding place for Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge days. Each room has an iron bed with hooks to hold the prisoners. There is nothing else in each room and Sol talks about how they were treated. Anybody who was educated, or wore glasses were taken in as enemies of the state, tortured and later killed. There are huge poles outside where men were swung around as part of the torture.  We move along silently. There are rooms with pictures of some of the people. It is bizarre to note that the perpetrators of this genocide kept records of all this! There are several pictures of men and women.   Some managed to survive and one of them has written a book which has been translated to English/French. I buy his book.  Nobody talks as we get back to the van to the killing fields. later Sol tells me that some of his family members were killed too.

We are taken to one of the killing fields . ( I remember seeing a 1984 movie called The killing fields that outlines the whole Khmer Rouge killings that started in 1975 and went on for about four years.) We see trees, glass cases filled with old clothes, hollow pits and a certain kind of palm tree. The tourists in this area are mostly adults who just stand and stare or sit in benches and close their eyes. Sol softly states,” These palm tree leaves were used to beat the people senseless and then they were killed. To drown the shouts of the people crying in pain they had loudspeakers piping in music. ”  Now I know why people are meditating, or sitting in silence thinking about all that here. There is a pagoda-like structure that has glass shelves with human skulls . I go in to see skulls of all ages, yes women, children and men were massacred. What makes us humans do these horrific acts of violence?

A sombre mood prevails us as we get back into the bus.

Cambodia travels: boat ride on Tonle Sap

April 13, 2013

054050057060If you look at a map of Cambodia you see two major rivers : one is the Mekong and the other is Tonle Sap. In fact, the river Tonle Sap near Phnom Penh becomes a mighty lake before you get to Siem Reap where the famous Angkor Wat temples are located. Sol decides to take us on a boat ride on the Tonle Sap River the second day.  We see the breakfast area crowded with tourists from Australia, Europe and parts of Asia. We wait till the crowds thin down to find tables to sit at. After breakfast, we all wait outside where I see something quite private.  A young child and adult bow to a monk who is blessing them.   It is not something I would see openly in the streets of India. Sol comes in the van to take us and I remember the expression for good morning so I say to him and the driver, Arun sus dei. They grin back to acknowledge the greeting.

“We will pick up our lunch from the same restaurant and take the boat right there” says Sol. It is a beautiful sunny day and we walk into the  restaurant that looks so different in daylight. The lunch is packed not in plastic containers, but in straw baskets! The containers look so beautiful, some of us want to carry them back to India. Sol and the driver help bring it all to the boat as we get in. The boat has a lower and upper deck with chairs and we all pile in and sit down.  Some of my cousins take out their i-pads to play Scrabble. Some want to climb to the upper deck. I just want to laze around and see the shore as we take off.

We see areas in the water with plastic bottles and realize that these are nets with floaters to mark boundaries where people are fishing for fish, shrimp and other sea creatures.  People , young and old seem at ease moving around in water.   The houses along the shore look modest dotted with a few temples here and there.I see a mosque and realize there is a small percentage of Muslims here. The breakfast, the sun makes us all sleepy and we nod off for an hour….

Soon Sol wakes us up letting us know we will be getting to a village near the river. Sol says that  they make silver ornaments here. Some cousins are curious to see them and buy a few. On the way I get distracted by little children riding motorbikes and bicycles. I am always interested in children wherever they are so I stop and they start saying a few phrases in English, “How are you madame?  What is your name?” Cheeky little darlings! So I ask them their names ( very difficult for me most of the time) and ask them why they are not in school. They smile and of course change the subject to India , my clothes etc. ( In Malaysia they start singing movie songs and want to know about the actors in Bollywood) Sol hurries us to the silver factories. The women are honest and tell us it is silver plating on brass pieces. We watch them work and then get back to the boat, where lunch awaits us: chicken satay, toasted spiced vegetables, rice, and baked fish along with a fruit to eat, bananas. OK, one more opportunity to snooze before we get back.

Cambodia travels: cyclo trip and more

April 11, 2013

051045048043The colors of the museum building are bright and the entrance looks ornate and beautiful.  Once we go in, it is easy to see the prevalent Hindu/Indian influence in Cambodia: statues of Vishnu and Brahma scattered around along with the Apsara and other fixtures of Cambodian art. I remember our trip to Thanjavur, South India and marveling at the bronze statues of the gods and goddesses, such precision, grace and style!  These are different yet majestic and massive sizes. South-east Asia was definitely influenced by the Hindu kingdoms and had several Hindu kings rule there as well. I remember seeing a stone structure depicting the story of the Ramayana in my Cambodian friend’s home in the US.

Yet with all these Hindu influences, the message of Buddha reached the far east and converted a lot of them to the religion of Buddhism and left few in India. Sol hustles us outside the museum and we see these green-shirted men waiting in cyclos (what we call cycle-rickshaw in India) to take us around the central park area. Gingerly I sit in one and when I feel comfortable, I start taking pictures of my cousins and uncles in other cyclos.  The streets are very clean and I see big hotels and buildings as we go around and women are getting ready to start their evening fast food sales. Malaysia was similar, people love eating tit-bits and snacks on the street. Street vendors abound here.

The cyclo ride takes us around the park . It is a slightly elevated park and is named for a woman  called Lady Penh . “Phnom” means hill so the capital is named after a woman:Lady of the Hill.Apparently , a Cambodian legend talks about an old woman named Penh who found four images of Buddhas and housed them on a hill near the Mekong river. Ok, I learnt something new today.  We get back to our hotel and sit around chatting before dinner. Dinner is special tonight, Sol is taking us to a lovely restaurant near the Tonle Sap river for Khmer food. We sit near a bunch of dancers and have fish amok , vegetarian stews and soups that are incredibly tasty.  The fish amok has lemongrass and a special flavor of galangal with lots of vegetables and some coconut milk. The flavor reminds one of Thai food, but it is not so spicy and yet so tasty.  All the dishes are just so good, I think I can live here forever! Soon the  music starts and the dancers in white move around gracefully and show expression in their hand movements. They wear  along pointed gold-like crown on their heads and the movements are slight and precise. It is a wonderful end to a long day for us.

We then walk over to the Night Market which is colorful. I see lots of Laotian, Thai and Vietnamese fabrics along with the famous kramas of Cambodia.  I have seen a lot of Cambodians, men and women move around the city in their motorbikes and their faces are covered with these checked cotton scarves they call kramas. The vendors cry out a few words in English, “Madame, madam, look, I give you good price!”  I have no idea if ‘my head is being shaved’ (I am getting ripped off) here. I see a silk-cotton mix scarf and buy it.  My cousin is horrified that  I did not bargain much. We take tuk-tuks back to the hotel.

Cambodia travels:Phnom Penh

April 9, 2013

036The flight from Malaysia to Cambodia was a crowded one and I am sitting next to this young beautiful girl from Ethiopia. “Are you visiting Cambodia?” I ask her and Tina tells me that she has been living there for over two years and her mother is a doctor. She lives near the capital and her brother owns a well-known restaurant here. She says,” Cambodia is over run with NGOs ( non-governmental organizations) some doing great work and others, well, others just using money to do their own things.”  I am eager to know more. I tell her about my Cambodian friends in USA who came in the 80’s from Thailand. This was a mother with nine children, the youngest being a new-born baby in her arms. Today the youngest is married with her own little baby and the mother has gone back to Battanbang to take care of her mother. ” Ah , but they are all Americans, here you will see Cambodians are gentle, loving people, but they hardly run businesses here. Even though the country has been free of the Khmer Rouge days of the 80’s they are still not owners of businesses.” I want to tell her more about the Cambodian family that I know, but I also need to get some first-hand idea about Cambodia from Tina.  She has a soft, French accent when she speaks to me about the people, the food, etc. Finally, as we get ready to depart the plane she adds, ” Form your own opinions here. I hope you find it a great trip for you.”

I land in the capital, worrying all the time if my e-visa will work. My group (mostly family members) join me and we sail through customs and immigration.Phew!  Our tour guide is delayed and I see a Cambodian family waiting for their relatives coming from abroad.  The grandma in the crowd is hugged by all the westernized family members who arrive. The grandma looks regal in her silk sarong even though she is petite. This is  a young country, having lost almost 50% of its population during the Khmer Rouge genocide. Her face is lined, yet she looks charming.

We go to our hotel after going through broad streets and narrow alleys, all looking clean. Our guide states, “The King is going to be buried soon, so the streets are filled with Buddhist monks.”  We see  saffron-colored robes everywhere on the way.  We get to our hotel. I go up to my room and lie down exhausted. The phone rings” Hello” I say crossly not wanting to get up with a ringing headache. ” What’s up Chobs? We are waiting for you in the lobby” Already? I come down and my cousin is not happy to see my tired face. I think I am hungry and the guide stops on the way to the palace area to let me eat something. Munching on my pear and sandwich I feel revived and ready for everything. My camera is there and I am eager to soak in the capital.

Sol, our guide, is a friendly  person who is willing to answer questions. He seems to know a lot about his country and  has a smiling face and that is reassuring. He teaches us a few phrases in Khmer, the language of the Cambodians and we promptly forget it except for one of my uncles who has a razor-sharp memory. ” We go now to the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, please no pictures inside it, OK?” Sol says.  The Royal palace is the residence of the King and most of it is closed up.  There are a lot of saffron-colored Buddhist monks along the way and it takes a little time to get to the area.

There is a beautiful garden around the palace area and we spend time admiring it. Next to the palace are these grey structures that look so elegant, they look like little shrines. Then we take our shoes off to get in and see the Silver Pagoda.  The floor is of silver and we see beautiful gold and silver Buddhas, and a beautiful Buddha in crystal. ( Sol tells us that many of the treasures here were stolen by the Vietnamese  but the richness of the Khmer period is obvious still.)  We admire the Buddhas and someone talks about the Buddhas in Thailand. Sol says they were probably stolen from Cambodia! 037040041We notice a lot of tourists mostly from Korea.  “Cambodia is now the place to visit” says Sol, “We have a lot of tourists and January is busy season”.  It is a sunny day and we still need to go on cyclos and see the Museum which is close by.

Guatemala diaries: on to Quirigua and Puerto Barrios

April 3, 2013

314320The next morning we decide to go to Cafe Welchez for coffee and Arty joins us. We go back to the hotel to have breakfast which is pretty simple and tasty. I am not hungry since I am nervous about making sure we are financially OK once we reach Puerto Barrios.  The others are already sitting in the bus so we hurry and put in our luggage and join the rest .  We stop on the way to Quirigua for lunch and see rows and rows of coffee being dried close to heavy-laden mango trees. We pick up some beans and they have a thin membrane covering the seed that looks almost light brown in color. Arty tells us to hurry since there is a football game starting soon and the crowds will be in to watch the game there. We order our food and start watching the game. Barcelona leads; Paco and Juanita start dancing with joy. Actually the crowd is also cheering Barcelona; apparently Milan is not popular here.

We leave just in time to get to Quirigua.  This reminds me of Copan; however, here the structures are made of sandstone and tells the story of the deceitful leader who captures the king of Copan and becomes the new king: a story of intrigue, deception and killings. There are several zoomorphs, representing mythical animals. Quite impressive.326330We leave Quirigua and finally find ourselves in the port area: Puerto Barrios. This place is considered to be a little ‘dodgy’ being a port town and has a very interesting demographic mix. There are a lot of Afro-caribbean people as well as Indians from India who mixed with the local population and are called ‘coolies”.  We see a ‘Tajmahal-like’  cemetery indicating the presence of Indians here.  We move on to get to our hotel, Amatique Bay Resort.344

Guatemala diaries: Copan, Honduras

April 1, 2013

248258273280297The stolen wallet leaves a mark on both of us. We are  irritated to have to get up early and avoid each other in the morning. I sit at the very back and meet a delightful couple called Cara and Steve from Washington State. Cara is a weaver and jewellery maker and her partner Steve carves wood. They share their brochures and spend a lot of time chatting with me. They have all heard about our recent loss and are very concerned. Right in the frontof the bus are the Barcelona pair, Paco and Jaunita and behind them are the two older gentleman from Canada. With Arty and the driver we are 10 of us in the bus. Arty is very good  giving us vivid details about our next part of the journey and we actually go through different parts of Guatemala city before going northeast to the Honduras border.

I have to say a word about the weather; almost every day has been sunny and pleasant. Arty says we are now approaching the warmer regions and except for a boat ride on Rio Dulce,we will feel warm most of the time. I am looking forward to it, though I never complained about the cool weather in the southern part of the country.

Copan is across the border and you realize that the Mesoamerican culture of the Mayas must have extended from southern Mexico all the way through Honduras. Arty tells us that after lunch at Copan, we will have a new guide there and he will meet us later.

Lunch is a filet of fish with some cooked veggies and rice, fairly decent stuff and we wash it down with water.We can use our quetzales or convert to lempiras. We wait for the new guide and Paco and Juanita start chatting as we wait. My husband buys a hat for me since it is getting really warm and sunny. I cradle the water bottle in my hands and keep taking swigs as we chat.

Then we go with the guide. We are 8 of us excluding the thin tall guide who takes us to a wooden board to explain the ruins of Copan. I hear macaws around me and my husband tries to get a picture of one of them.

The guide has a long wooden stick with a feather at the end. He explains that they are supposed to be very careful when they point at the stone structures and not in anyway cause marks. The ruins of Copan talk about the mayan people  living there from 1200BC   and leaving almost 850 years after the birth of Christ. The ending of this civilization is considered a mystery, but it seems to point to the fact that the mayans moved because of too much strain to the natural resources in that area.

I am struck by the beautiful stone structures that are called Stela and marked with an alphabet.  On the sides is heiroglyphics that depict the time period.  Some are protected by a cottage-like roof on top.  I love their sports arena where they played something like basketball, but used their hips and elbows to move the ball. What dexterity they must have had!  And then I see trees growing among the stones and the guide tells us that archeologists will  not move the trees and cause the crumbling of the stone structures, like Pompeii reconstruction caused. I am reminded of the Angkor Wat complex where the trees grow out of the stone faces. There is a lot to see and we walk around looking at the excavations that are still going on.  I am impressed by one statue where the last king is holding the hand of the first king.  Our guide tells us that there is more to be discovered in Copan. Amazing place!

Arty comes back and takes us to our hotel for the night.Both of us go for a walk  around the hotel and find a lovely cafe for wonderful coffee, Cafe Welchez.  I am tempted to have a sandwich there for dinner but we want to explore the town. The cobblestoned streets and the friendly people make this a perfect border town.  Paco and Juanita join us for dinner at this place which reminds me so much of the NYU area in downtown Manhattan.  The food( Cafe Via Via) is excellent here- vegetable soup&’ muchachas’:  a tortilla sandwich with melted cheese in between. I chatter in spanish with Juanita leaving my husband and Paco staring and smiling politely at each other. We walk back to the Hotel Marina which has a beautiful garden area near the swimming pool and we meet a lot of vacationing Americans who are having a good time there.  I sit down to collect my thoughts and put it on paper, hoping to have good news in Puerto Barrios the next day regarding the money and new credit cards….

Guatemala diaries: part of the procession in Antigua

March 29, 2013

180204172That night was so lovely eating in that dining room in Casa Santo Domingo. I think about it the next morning as we go in for breakfast. What a blast we had! Last night these mariachi guys sang to us moving from table to table and made me feel  like giggling. The soup was heavenly and the waiters were dressed in purple while the hostess was dressed like a nun.

The same attires invite us for breakfast and I wonder at the reminders around us of a Catholic country. I feel a little uneasy, not because I am non-Catholic but I would feel equally uneasy with a Hindu religious theme surrounding me in a hotel. Separation of church and hotel is important to me I guess. After all the hoopla for breakfast, we pack our bags and wait for Simba. He comes very late and that is the first strange thing that happens today. “Why so late?” we say together. ” Too much traffic today, they have a big procession in the main square, lots of crowds” he says wearily. Semanas santa, they start their parades long before Easter here.

Simba is like the Nike ad; he just does it and does not say what is going to happen next. Now I wonder, maybe things would have been different that day if I had known we would be walking into crowds, the procession would take so long, etc, etc. But that is just me, Epimethius, worrying after the event. 

“Antigua used to be the capital of Guatemala, but then they had earthquakes and had to move to capital to Gautemala City,” Simba informs us, I can see this city being the jewel of the country with its colonial-style architecture and beautiful cobblestoned streets.

We first walk down the cobblestoned road avoiding the cars and see a black statue holding a cross in a park. “That’s Bethancourt, he was one of the first to start helping the poor. I will show you the famous hospital he started further down.”  We are admiring the streets, the buildings and then he shows us the fountain square. I am struck by the new gas station across from this ancient  european-looking square. No wonder my brother loved Antigua, it is so charming…..the old ruins intermingling with the brightly colored houses, the cobblestones, the sunny weather, the festive atmosphere.

Now we see more and more people and the vendors selling food.”Corvates, corvates!” they yell and I wonder why they are talking bow-ties and then I see them, honey-dipped deep fried batter that looks like bow-ties! Ices, colored candy, little games for children and vendors yelling are all around us.  Soon we see a procession far, far away moving slowly. Simba warns us to be careful with our  purses and I am close to a barred wooden door, looking at the procession. We have finally stopped to watch after seeing rows and rows of beautifully decorated sawdust and vegetable creations on the road. The procession will walk over all this hard work, and that is the creators’ penitence! Of course I get it, I went to a Catholic school and remember the nuns talking about sacrifice and all that. Most religions have this self-effacing part, like the fasts Hindus keep to ‘purify’ themselves.

The procession comes closer, first we see people dressed as Roman soldiers, then the purple -robed Nazarenes, the place is filled with them. They all avoid stepping on the decorations. Finally, the big tableau comes into view, carried by several people, quite a sight.  As the procession walks over the decorations and we are getting to slowly leave, my husband says, “My wallet’s gone!”223227237241

Guatemala diaries: Antigua & Casa Santo Domingo

March 29, 2013

148It is about 3 in the afternoon and we are approaching a beautiful yellow and white filigreed church of the Merceds. We are struck by the intricate workmanship. There are some people hanging outside and I get a little distracted when a young gentleman approaches me speaking  clear, unaccented English, ” Excuse me but are you from India? I love your country; I lived there for a few years!”  I am delighted to meet  him and his wife joins him to add, ” I studied in Calcutta in 1998!”  We talk, laugh and I leave excited to meet someone like that in Antigua. Simba urges me to go in and look at something in the front. I enter the Merced church, I am continually amazed by the statues of Christ with stigmata; parishioners are attending a service and I quietly walk to the front to see this magnificent colored carpet of many colors and surrounded by vegetables of all kinds. ” Simba what a beautiful carpet !” I exclaim and he corrects me, ” No, it is not a carpet it is a design made with colored sawdust!” I think of kolam / rangoli in India and marvel at it by going back in again. By this time it is getting darker in the late afternoon and Simba decides to drop us off at our hotel, Casa Santo Domingo. Hedda and Jennie want us to be dropped off first because they say that they are dying to see this hotel of ours. Well, the lobby is grand and has many statues and the passage area to the dining room looks wierd with holes in the stone walls. Apparently it was a Dominican Monks’ monastery. It looks grand and has a whole museum area that is closed by the time I discover it. 154159156The hotel room looks inviting and I feel like taking a nap before dinner.