Friday, 18 December 2015

Jurassic Park for Archaeologists

One of the things that is often stated at info sessions about graduate degrees in the arts are that they are very isolating and lonely experiences. Considering the lack of traditional classroom learning and time for extracurricular, it is quite easy to get stuck in one’s own specialization and forget to socialize. At Melbourne we try to mediate this isolation through organizing graduate groups and having communal office spaces. A positive thing about this is that you meet a lot of new people and get to learn new things about those you already know.

Early this year we learned that one of our new colleagues had never seen Jurassic Park. Now while I am sure this is not so uncommon in the new generation, it still came as a shock to many of us who had grown up with fond memories of Sam Neill’s reluctant heroism and Jeff Goldblum’s introduction of the rocker-mathematician look. We felt that as a graduate community we had an obligation to initiate Marc into the glorious world of dinosaur films and began to plan a movie night.

Now this was a slightly controversial decision as archaeologists have spent decades arguing the difference between themselves and paleontologists at school visits and cocktail parties.  The popular Youtube phenomenon Archaeosoup even wrote a song called ‘We don’t do dinosaurs’ to express the distress that every archaeologist feels when confronted with the comment ‘You’re an archaeologist e? Man I always wanted to dig up dinosaurs as a kid.’

However, in the spirit of camaraderie we decided to leave our ‘archaeologists are not paleontologist’ pickets at home for the evening and dive into a bout of 90s nostalgia. The film did not fail to deliver and we all enjoyed an evening of T-rex chases, veggiesauruses, a chain smoking Samuel L. Jackson and Jeff Goldblum reclining like some kind of Greek Apollo statue.

By some stroke of luck the new Jurassic World film came out only a few weeks after our movie night, so the dinosaur-filled joy could continue beyond our original movie night. Loudly humming the Jurassic Park theme song we walked from our attic office in the university to the theatre in the centre of the city. Despite what anyone else might tell you, the movie was amazing and delivered on all the things we have grown to love about the Jurassic Park franchise. There was witty humour, giant lizard-like dinosaurs, arrogant scientists, a sense Michael Crichton's moral technologism and the addition of this hero:

I would love to say the entire experience was educational. That it taught us something about misrepresentation of academic disciplines in public media, the hollywoodification of our research, the difficult balance between maintaining academic integrity and assuring commercial success. In truth I have to say that none of these things were really brought up during the movie. Ultimately the aim of the movie nights is to bring all us grad students together and to give us a break from the daily toil of research and teaching. Really it is about easing the stress and solitude of the postgraduate experience.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

In the Footsteps of the Incas Part 1: Space Centres and Sunburns

The idea of going to Peru first really started taking hold in my imagination when I was about 16. I was in Italy on vacation at the time with my family and that of our ex-neighbours from our time living in New York. We were discussing where we wanted to go on our next joint vacation.

I would love to take credit for the idea of going to Peru, but I am pretty sure that it was actually my friend Sarah who posited it.

My dad was talking about going to some remote island chain to spend a week on the beach, an idea that appealed to a number of other members of our party, most certainly not including myself. I was the one ranting about the uselessness of such vacations, wanting to do something more cultural. I tended to get bored quite easily as a teenager (actually I still get bored easily) so I argued that I could spend about a day maybe two on the beach before I would go crazy and attempt to drown myself in the sea. I was also a very dramatic teenager.

Sarah took a more constructive approach and attempted to suggest alternative places that offered a lot of culture and also relaxation. One of her many suggestions happened to be Peru. My father picked up on this and asked of all the places why Peru, Thailand, Egypt, Turkey, he could understand those, but thought Peru was an odd one to throw into the mix. By this point I had joined team sensible teenager and began to state a number of cool things in Peru, the nasca lines, Macchu Picchu, Spanish colonial churches and of course lots of llamas.

About 7 years later I finally had the chance to put our plan in motion when my partner and I decided to go visit our friend in Colombia. While I am 100% sure we could have spent the whole 3 weeks I was in South America trekking around Colombia (and my friend did suggest it at one point). I was dead set on going to Peru.

In the end I managed to plan my trip so I would be in the US for the 4th of July, in Colombia for a week and a half and then to Peru for about a week and back in Melbourne in time to celebrate my birthday.

I tried to coordinate this trip with 4 other people including my partner, his brother who was in Europe, our mutual friend in Colombia and my friend Sarah who was in the states at the time. As is often the case with international planning, something went wrong and Sarah ended up booking a different trip from us. The dangers of online miscommunication. Seriously guys if you are trying to plan something take the time to call people, I didn’t and it caused me a lot of stress.

Anyway we booked our painfully long flights (everything is far away when travelling from Australia), gave notice of our leave to our supervisors and departments and when July came around we finally headed out on our trip.

Our first stop, Texas was ridiculously hot and humid, but the festive 4th of July atmosphere, and a trip to the Johnson Space Centre made the weather more tolerable. I personally find space travel and study fascinating so I just love the Space Centre. I mean you get to see rockets and mission control and the astronaut training centre, what’s not to like. Plus they have a ton of information on the history of NASA’s space programs. So basically Disney land for any history/sci fi geek. Also if any of you happen to go to the museum make sure to try to find the copy of Asimov’s Foundation and the little dinosaur toy. I mean if I were an astronaut those are probably the things I would bring to space, that and possibly a vacuum packed box of Oreos.

After a very short stop in Houston we headed off on part two of our journey. This time heading to Colombia. After a brief encounter with a US passport control officer who literally told us not to bring anything funky back from Colombia. The fact that he felt the need to tell us this is quite a sad reflection on how tourists have aided in driving the drug trade in South America, a trade that is tearing many of these countries apart. Something to think about… After reassuring the officer that we were going to visit our friend who is a doctor and finds such things disgusting, we boarded our flight.

My visit to Colombia was the first time I encountered an airport where literally none of the staff I encountered spoke English (since then I encountered it again in Iran). People still tried to help us and with a lot of gesturing and guesswork we managed to find where we were going. Our friend’s father kindly came to pick us up so we didn’t have to navigate the problems of finding a cab, which I was personally very happy about. In fact both his parents were ridiculously hospitable. Maybe it is a cultural thing but his mom would cook us meals every day even though we all were perfectly happy to go out and buy our own food. From tamales, to bean soup, to chicharones, she let us try all the local favourites, and she was an amazing cook.

We were treated to a full tour of Bogota including the lovely hilltop church at Monsettate with an incredible view of the city, the gold museum where everything is distractingly shiny, and the hip downtown area for some live music. He also introduced us to the local 'drink of choice' Chicha, which I personally found non potable. Just a word of caution, always try a sip before asking for a full glass of the stuff no matter how amazing those around you might say it is. I would compare its effects to marmite, you either love it or you hate it.

We took a few days out of the big city to visit the old colonial town of Cartagena. It was beautiful and warm and relaxing. There was a massive modern area with a historical centre nearby and beaches ran the entire length of the town. As we were told the beaches by the town itself were quite touristy and overcrowded, two of Julian’s friends who were locals organised for us to go out to Playa Blanca, a short boatride away. We ended up having our own tent out on the edge of the beach away from the tourists. From where we stood all we could see was a clear blue stretch of water.

It was beautiful and sunny and relaxing until a storm came and we literally had to be rescued by boat, mostly because we (the European tourists) had decided to go for a walk and hadn’t paid attention to the distant dark clouds. Still we had a good number of hours in the sun, enough for me to get ridiculously sunburnt, which became exceedingly uncomfortable in the next part of the trip as we were heading off to the cooler climes of Peru…

Saturday, 7 November 2015

My Tuk Tuk Journey Part 2: Siem Reap

By the time I got home from the killing fields it was well into the evening. I ate my last dinner in the Cambodian capital and collected my luggage from the hostel. The next part of my journey would take me to Siem Reap, what I’d call the archaeological capital of the country.

Before leaving for Cambodia I had booked an 8 hour night bus, so as to lose the least amount of time humanly possible travelling. After all I needed to save the few days I had left to indulge my inner geek and obsess about all the ruins.

Now for anyone who has never taken the nightbus in Cambodia it is not a particularly pleasant experience. The traffic is only mildly better at night, so your first hour is spend trying to drown out the honking and screeching of tires. The bus is set up with reclining bunk beds so technically you can sleep, but I am quite tall and the bus company takes no responsibility for your personal affects so I ended up with a bag of your valuables taking up most of my foot room, so not much sleep for me.

I guess I have had worse bus experiences, there was one trip where I decided to take a megabus from London to St Andrews in Scotland which was far more painful. It also drove through the night but there were no reclining seats, or really anything made for sleeping on. Plus it was completely full and we were quite late so we ended up sitting by the toilet so that kept us up most of the night.

On the other hand I have also had some really lovely bus journeys. The bus connection between Eastern Europe and Turkey for example is quite nice, they serve you snacks and tea and it is very clean and comfortable. Then again maybe I just got lucky in the company I picked and the other busses are terrible, who knows.

So after about 3 hours of sleep I arrived in Siem Reap at about 6 in the morning. I immediately walked out to my hotel, the sister establishment of Velkommen in Phnom Penh, got shown my room, a smaller dorm then my previous one with only 6 beds instead of 16 and I fell asleep for another two hours.

At 8:30 am my pre-booked tuk tuk driver was set to pick me up from the hotel and start my tour of the temples. Slightly groggy, but enthused, I grabbed a few granola bars, packed a camera and set out to see the sites.

Now travelling around the temples solo is not a cheap endeavour. It is not particularly expensive, but it is definitely something you are meant to do with others to split the cost. I was aware of this so I booked a tuk tuk on the cheaper end of the scale. While my partner was not too keen on this, he wanted me to book with the company he and his friends had travelled with, I did not see the need to book an air-conditioned jeep with a guaranteed fluent English speaking tour guide who would accompany you to every temple. Of course I knew he was just looking out for my safety but at double to triple the cost it just didn’t seem worth it.

It is a good thing I didn’t listen to my partner because my tuk tuk driver was incredible. I honestly don’t think my experience would have been even half as lovely with any other guide. His English was completely fine, he was patient and flexible. While he couldn’t enter any of the sites with me, he gave me a guide book to take along and gave a short history for every temple. As I narrate my experiences at Siem Reap you will find out just how amazing he was.

Originally I had planned for two days of temples and one day of visiting floating villages and the mangroves on the lake by boat. After a long session trowelling the internet for reviews just before leaving, I discovered the area I was set to visit on the lake was more of a painful tourist attraction than anything else. I had canoed past floating villages when I lived in Singapore, and that had been an extremely positive experience, I didn’t really want to tarnish it with a memory of being exploited to sit in a dingy and be ferried between shops where I was forced to buy random things I did not need for fear of not being brought back to shore.

Anyway I told my tuk tuk driver this on day one and he was nice enough to completely change my schedule, more temples and time in town with a short drive by the lake to see everything from afar. Sounded good to me.

My first visit of the trip was of course to Angkor Wat, the most visited tourist destination in all of Cambodia. Now while being a much beloved attraction what many tourists don’t realise before their entry into the temple complex is that it is still an active religious site. The statues of Buddha intermixed among carvings of the Hindi pantheon still receive daily offerings and rituals of worship are conducted by monks all year round. Like many traditional churches and mosques this means that there is a strict dress code at the site. People are expected to cover legs and arms. While they are moderately lenient, allowing a scarf to cover the shoulders on hot days, they will bar your entry if they see you are completely flaunting their dress code. If you happen to forget your temple-appropriate garb there are dozens of merchants selling scarves, flowing skirts, shirts and harem style pants that you can buy. Just remember the closer to the temple complex you get the more expensive everything becomes so better to buy stuff at the market the day before. This also applies to things like drinks and snacks.

It may surprise you to note that I spent less time at Angkor Watt then some of the smaller sites. While this may not be reflected in my photo album (I took ridiculous amounts of photos of the bass reliefs), I found Angkor Watt a bit too crowded and stuffy. Don’t get me wrong it was incredible, an amazing feat of architecture with beautifully carved decoration, but I just wanted a break from all the tour groups. My guide was a bit surprised that I came out of the complex after only 2-3 hours as you can easily get lost there for an entire morning. However, he told me we would be returning to catch the sunrise before I left so I could spend a bit more time in the temple then.

As we got away from Angkor Wat the crowds began to thin and I was able to enjoy my visit much more. I know, hypocritical, a tourist complaining about other tourists, but I can’t help how I feel.

It was fascinating to note the different colours, materials, layouts and decorative styles of each temple. I was able to connect these to wider historical trends as my guide gave a short explanation for each one, its builder, religious affiliation, time period and often a myth related to the site. armed with his teaching and his guide book I was able to better appreciate each temple and its role within the region’s development.

From an archaeological point of view it was also interesting to note the level of preservation of the different temples. While temples like Angkor Watt or the Bayan were fully restored including the installation of mobility ramps and ticket stalls a number of temples had merely been cleared for tourist access, with trees growing into the structures and tumble from ruined buildings littering the site. One such complex was that of Ta Prohm, actually used as a filming set in Lara Croft. Even more critical were sites like Kbal Spean, still half submerged in water or Beng Melea, that had been completely abandoned to the elements. Here the best thing to do was ask a worker to give a short tour. Most of the maintenance men and women were willing to help a tourist out and help them navigate the rubble. Their English may not be perfect but they can get the point across and they know the ruins better than anyone. I really discourage anyone from attempting to walk around in the complex on their own. The chances of tripping and falling off a roof onto a pile of rocks is very real. If money is an issue, like me you can ask a local worker on site rather than a guide to show you around and you can pretty much pay them however much you have on you. Just please be fair, they did just help you avoid a serious concussion.

While food around the temples is more pricey than in town it is still very reasonable in comparison to cities in Europe or America. Most restaurants do a simple rice and meat dish that is quite cheap. If you are strapped for cash (a poor student or backpacker) you can always ask your driver to bring you somewhere that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. If he is nice, like mine, he’ll make sure you can get a good meal for a good price.

For an afternoon pick me up try buying some palm sugar sweets. I found that I got quite tired of all the walking and climbing in the afternoons, especially since I decided to do a short intense trip rather than giving myself a week or two to really relax and see the sites at a reasonable pace. The palm sugar candies are cylindrical in shape, and often packed in palm leaves. Have one in the afternoon and the sugar rush should last you an hour or two. Just don’t get them wet, in fact make sure you don’t have any unpacked food in your room, I made that mistake and there are these evil little red ants that crawl into everything and then come out and bite you when you least expect it.

Anyway, for people whose travel plans permit it, I really recommend watching the sun rise over Angkor Watt. It is absolutely beautiful, seriously, I couldn’t get a proper photo of it because my camera was horrible but I am sure if you have one of those fancy professional-looking ones or just a really good smartphone, you can find a setting where the colours come out.

I actually encountered a slight hiccup the morning of the sunrise. I had plugged in my phone, which was nearly out of battery, with my alarm set and went to bed early the night before. However, my roommates were inconsiderate jerks (seriously one girl took 30 minutes blowdrying her hair at like midnight every day I was there while I was trying to sleep) and one of them unplugged my phone immediately as I fell asleep since they wanted to charge their phone and computer at the same time and we only had one plug each. Needless to say my phone ran out of battery, my alarm did not go off and the hotel manager had to come wake me up as my tuk tuk driver had been waiting for me for half an hour. Quite angry and utterly embarrassed I threw on clothes, grabbed my bag and ran out of the room. The worst part was my tuk tuk driver had been nice enough to buy me a pho boy for breakfast because it was so early. He kept apologising that it had gotten cold and I felt even more horrible. It was delicious by the way, gotta try the local sandwiches. I managed to get to Angkor Watt just in time to see the sun rise and I met two Singaporean girls about my age so we could all take photos of one another.

But Siem Reap is not just known for its great Khmer temples, it also has a lively town, and this is where I spent most evenings. The town was a ways away from my hostel which was located closer to the tourist attractions like Angkor Watt and the Khmer museum. By the way, for those wondering, the museum is nice, but nothing in comparison to the rest of the trip, so if you are short on time I would skip it. Plus there is a national museum in Phnom Penh which covers a larger range of Cambodia’s history. My tuk tuk driver again proved himself to be a lovely person and was nice enough to drive me there in the afternoons even though it was not part of the set itinerary. He would drop me off before his Chinese class, which he was taking in order to be a better guide.

The town has a number of more modern temples which are fun to check out, but the main attractions are the markets. You can buy everything from fresh fruit to silk scarves to Angkor Watt snowglobes. The strong tourist presence means many Cambodians working in the market can speak French or English which means you can haggle.

For those who would prefer to spend some time off their feet there are dozens of fish tanks where you sit on the edge and put your feet in while fish “massage your feet”. Often this only costs a couple of dollars for half an hour and it includes a canned soft drink. More extensive spa type packages can be found as well for anything from facial masks to manicures to full body massages. Just remember to respect those working there, the staff is made up of many young Cambodian women who have to suffer obnoxious male foreigners who treat them like unregistered prostitutes rather than trained masseuses. I actually had to go up to one man attempting to force an unwilling masseuse back to his hotel and tell him to back off or I’d call the police. He said I didn’t understand and this is just what girls in Cambodia were supposed to do. I subsequently told him that he was a disgusting human being and pointed him out to the nearest police officer. I doubt he got much more than a telling off, but maybe he’ll think twice before disrespecting a woman in that way again.

The gourmands among you will be happy to know that the Siem Reap markets are full of street vendors selling delectable local foods (and yes mango milkshakes). There are also a number of outdoor hawker style areas and some very reasonable sit in restaurants. For a bit of a splash (on your last evening for example when your frugality has paid off and you still have enough dollars for a fancier meal) find a restaurant where they do music and dance performances, especially apsara, considered typical to Cambodia. The temple bar and restaurant has shows every night and they have an extensive cocktail menu for those who would prefer a drink with their dancing.

I actually took a fantastic Cambodian cooking class while in Siem Reap at the Paper Tiger, beyond the pleasure of learning a new dish, the course also took you to a local food market where you learned about the different ingredients that went into your dishes. I made green mango salad and amok. While I think that the cooking ended up being as much my doing as the chef assigned to help us, the food came out amazing and I ate with a great sense of achievement. We even got a fancy certificate at the end.

Finally my trip was at an end. The same evening I was to cook my first Cambodian meal was also my last. I had booked a night bus back to Phnom Penh where my flight would depart around noon the next day. I would have probably missed my bus and my flight had it not been for my amazing tuk tuk driver who yet again saved the day and found out that the bus arrival station was different was where the bus departed. After another uncomfortable bus journey and a few hours drinking juice and uploading photos at my previous hostel (they even let me use one of their showers while I was no longer staying there). It was time to take one final tuk tuk through the crazy streets of Phnom Penh. 

Monday, 26 October 2015

My Tuk Tuk Journey Part 1: Phnom Penh

A long overdue post about my trip to Cambodia last year in December. I know I am terrible at keeping my blog up to date. I think I am just on my computer so much for research and keeping in touch with people that I end up wanting to spend the rest of my time doing things away from the screen. Anyways, better late than never right?

I don't know how many people are aware of this but there is a rule when you are a PhD student in certain countries that you are not allowed to leave the country for more than 2 weeks in your first year of study. In my case my first 9 months, as confirmation, which is meant to be your 1 year review in which they confirm that you can continue your project, was pushed forward to avoid the crazy inter-semester period. Anyway, this rule meant that from the moment I signed up to my degree, I was pretty much stuck. My two weeks off were spent visiting family and going to my MA graduation ceremony. A nice break from studies but I didn't exactly get to see anything new and exciting. Luckily for me Confirmation came early so by late November I was free to jetset across the world, provided I still worked on my thesis and publications list. 

To celebrate my newfound freedom I went to Cambodia last year for about a week in December. Originally this was planned so I could visit a friend doing research there but about a month before he ended up getting sick and needing to go to the states to get medical care.

I had already bought non-refundable tickets and I was itching to get out of Australia. Not that Australia is bad that time of year, on the contrary it is sunny and there is tons to do. I just feel the need to travel after being in one place for too long. Plus I had gotten excited about the trip, especially about seeing the temples near Siem Reap. So I decided to go on my own.

Now you probably don’t know this about me, unless you have had me call you when abroad alone, but I am a pretty terrible solo traveller. Not in the sense that I can’t adjust well or anything, I am actually ok at finding my way around new places and making friends. I just like things to be well-planned and having a back-up. If I have another person around I feel more secure, like if something goes wrong we are twice as likely to figure out a solution. Somehow it is just easier to deal with setbacks when you are with someone else. Also I hate the travelling part of going abroad, you know getting to the airport, waiting for a flight, I just find it very boring on my own. I just want to be in the place, not spend hours in transit. Once I have been in the place for a few days I tend to be ok. Just getting there and back is stressful for me.

Despite all this, I know that every once in a while I need to go out and try. Just so I don’t get too comfortable having other people travelling with me, and I reckon the more I do it, the less stressful it will be. It hasn’t been stress-free so far but a girl can hope right?

Like I expected getting there was quite stressful. I was flying Asia Air. Not a bad airline, your standard budget flight, it was just at a ridiculous hour and quite long. For some reason I thought Cambodia was much closer to Australia, but you take a long flight to Kuala Lumpur and then it is another couple hours til you get to Cambodia. Doesn’t help that I had a 4 hour layover.

Anyway I finally got where I needed to be, Phnom Penh airport. From there I got a tuk tuk, the typical local mode of transport to the hostel I had booked by the river.
Now I don’t know if any of you have ever experienced traffic in Phnom Penh, but it is bad, like really bad. People are constantly weaving in and out of lanes, there are tons of motorcycles and tuk tuks that don’t really seem to stick to the normal driving rules. Not for the faint hearted. I personally was just happy I didn’t have to drive there.
My hostel ‘Velkommen Backpackers’ was amazing. The owner was extremely friendly and helpful, as were all the staff. I got there in the evening so after they showed me to my room they gave me a map and set me on my way to the riverside night market. The weather was nice and mild and the road was easy to follow, so I was able to relax a little after my long trip.

I was expecting a small local market, but what I found was a big outdoor bazaar. Apparently they happened to be celebrating the friendship between the Cambodian and German nations so there was a concert in the centre of the market. In front were souvenir shops, situated in little German Christmas market style stalls. As you got further into the market it became more local with shops selling regular household goods. However, what I was looking for was at the back of the market. A large area covered in rugs with dozens of food and drink vendors alongside it.

I tried a local noodle dish and then went in search of something sweet. I ended up settling for what looked like a milkshake stand with mounds of fruit piled up on the counter, pineapple, passion fruit, lychee, orange, some fruits I had never seen before. I ended up settling on mango and it was AMAZING, and extremely cheap. It just tasted so fresh. It became my new addiction after that. I think I had a smoothie every day I was in Cambodia, whether from a street vendor or from a restaurant. Full and satiated I went back to the hostel and fell asleep almost instantly, only to be whisked away again for drinks by my dorm mates. I was quite the odd one out only staying for a week while they were each backpacking for months on end. Two fifty cent beers, which did not taste as bad as they sound, and a lot of travel stories later. I was in bed, exhausted.

The next day I decided to go visit some of the sites. I was still tired from my long journey but I knew I only had a few days, I had better make them count. I went to the central market, visited some temples, saw the palace and a museum. My food consisted of a smoothie and bread roll in the morning followed by a delicious fish soup at lunch. For dinner I acted like a real tourist and just got a burger at the hotel. By that point all my energy had left me and I just wanted to go to sleep.

I got back to my room only to be whisked away again for drinks by my dorm mates. Though I was tired, I felt like I had to embrace the hostel experience. Plus traveling on my own it was nice to have a bit of social time. Two fifty cent beers later (not as bad as they sound actually), I was falling asleep at the table. Luckily I wasn’t the only one and while the others went off to party, myself and my sleepy American companion headed home.

By that point I had gotten around on foot for the most part. The city centre is quite manageable and I wasn’t too keen on spending too long in Cambodian traffic. However, the next day I had run out of things nearby I wanted to see and I was pondering what to do next at a local temple when I bumped into another solo traveller.

Now while I enjoy travelling with others, the great thing about being a solo traveller is that you can plan your holiday completely according to your own schedule and interests. No-one telling you to hurry up when you are exploring a museum (this happens to me a lot as an archaeologist) and no-one else to take into account when choosing a dining option. The other great thing is that when you don’t want to travel on your own you can most often find someone to go with you. Especially when staying at a hostel, but even just when out for lunch or visiting a local tourist destination.

It turned out the girl I bumped into was also out of things to do nearby, so we decided to put our resources together and get a tuk tuk out to the detention centre at the other end of the city, stopping in the market on the way to get some meat filled pastry and pineapple on a stick.

This detention centre exposes a less rosy part of Cambodian history. It is a complex dating back to the days of the Khmer Rouge. It is one of the many places where they used to hold people who opposed the regime. When Polpot (the leader of the Khmer Rouge) and his oppressive dictatorial government fell, the extent of their cruelty came to light. Rather than bulldozing the complex and attempting to forget this terrifying period in Cambodia’s history, the new government turned the area into an in situ museum. Showcasing photos of the various prisoners, allowing visitors to explore reconstructions of their cells, read letters that they sent and view a number of other artefacts and reconstructions, detailing the inhuman treatment that the many inhabitants of the cells had to undergo.

After this visit we shared a taxi to the killing fields, another confrontational site just outside of town. I had been told by the others at my hostel that this was an absolute must when visiting Cambodia and they were absolutely right. If you are the kind of person who travels to foreign countries purely to relax and leave the world’s problems behind, this might not be the best bet for you. I tend to travel to experience local history and culture, and this particular visit left a very deep impression on me. While but few physical manifestations of the events remain present at this site, the narratives and atmosphere are able to convey the history all on their own.

While normally I detest audio-guides, those provided at this site were essential to how you experience the place. The story of the Khmer Rouge’s actions is told by people who actually experienced the regime. They describe various structures that used to stand on the killing fields, and they describe the sights and sounds you would have experienced there, and under the Khmer Rouge more generally. They also do not shy away from giving conflicting stories, some from those who suffered through being targeted by the regime, others who had been the soldiers forced to commit these unspeakable acts.

It was very difficult listening to some of the witnesses’ narrations. They seem too personal to be sharing with random visiting tourists, strangers to the entire situation. There was an interview segment of the tape that you listened to while walking around a lake where I felt the need to pause and temporarily isolate myself from my companion. I cannot recount what was said in the interview, the details are all quite hazy now, now do I really want to. It feels like I would be doing a disservice to the people who actually experienced this period, those who had enough courage to retell the stories of their encounters with the Khmer Rouge.

The visit to Cambodia actually came just after a conference I had been to about Critical Heritage Studies held at ANU in Canberra. There, one of the speakers told us about the hidden histories of Bali, the terrible purging that occurred there, the discrimination, the oppression. While in Cambodia these types of difficult histories are openly discussed and displayed, in Bali this is all covered up and hidden from the tourist. Bali paints itself as a picture perfect exotic paradise. In my honest opinion, I think any kind of whitewashing of history is bad. History is something contested, something that is constantly reinterpreted and reformed. If we want to truly understand it, and get a grasp on where we are today, we need to explore as many of its facets as possible, hear it told through different voices, not all of which we necessarily agree with. But in the end it is not my history, and who am I to dictate which approach to history will best heal past inflicted wounds.

After touring the killing fields my companion and I sat in silence for a while, not really ready to get back into the tuk tuk and head home. It just seemed wrong to recommence our happy-go-lucky travels so soon after being confronted with something so sombre. Eventually we started talking, sharing the most difficult story we had each experienced. For her it was the photos of the inmates, the faces made them all too personable. For me it was the guard’s story, showing how they too, in their own way, were victims of the regime’s cruelty. Eventually we got up and went to find our tuk tuk driver.

While the experience was in a sense a very solitary one, my travelling companion and myself basically spent most of our time on our own, I think it was actually very important that I was able to share the experience with someone. Discussing my experience with her afterwards was kind of cathartic in a way. It is just such an unimaginable thing, the amount of death and pain caused by the regime, something difficult to come to terms with just in your own mind. By talking about it I was able to externalise my feelings gain some distance, and carry on with my day, rather than obsessing about the grief of those long gone. While it is important to realise that such atrocities exist in the world, and an awareness of them is necessary to avoid them recurring, allowing them to consume your entire day or trip really isn’t going to help anyone.

Heading back into town on the tuk tuk we slowly recovered after the self-shattering effects of the killing fields. Still quit unable to talk about more mundane subjects, my fellow traveller took out her ipod and turned on her travel playlist. As we pulled up to my hotel the song 'Send me on my way' by Rusted Root started playing, the perfect travel song for continuing my journey.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Where to get your caffeine fix. Melbourne Edition

Melbourne, Australia is a city known for its multiculturalism, its graffiti and its coffee.

Now when I say it is known for its coffee I do not mean to say that every single shop selling coffee is a contender for world’s best coffee. I have met countless people who come to Melbourne expecting amazing coffee, go into the first café they come across on Swanston Street (the main drag of the CBD), order a cup and are disenchanted with Melbourne coffee forever. To them I would say it isn’t the coffee buddy, it is you. What they are doing is the equivalent of hearing New York has the best bagels in the world and then being disappointed after buying a bagel at Dunkin Donuts.

What I mean that anywhere you are in Melbourne no more than 5 minutes away is a really nice cup of coffee waiting for you in a local café. You just need to know where to go.

I have a coffee crazed Swedish partner which means I make it my job to know where there is good coffee, just in case we are out for a walk and he starts showing signs of caffeine withdrawals. These can range from seeming slightly deflated to downright cranky. He doesn’t always need coffee at these moments, sometimes he is just hungry (mostly for chicken) or it is too crowded, but the safest bet is probably coffee.

As his personal café database I have developed a pretty keen eye for good coffee.

Brunetti's also does a mean Affogato

There are of course the culture specific coffee like Brunetti’s Italian cappuccinos, perfect with some biscotti napoletani (check them out on weekday afternoons when they do a 6.50 pastry and coffee deal) or Bahla's Lebanese coffee to be enjoyed with a giant box of their famous baklava.
Though amazing these are more special occasion places than your standard everyday café.

For your day-to-day coffee needs look out for specific brands. If they advertise 5 Senses, Seven Seeds, De Bella, Padre, St Ali or Market Lane you are on the right track. These are all Melbourne roasts that are generally well loved. There are many more so don't hesitate to ask around for people's favourites!

Real coffee connoisseurs may want to look out for cafés that signpost daily coffee specials with roasts of different origins and added flavours.

There is also the ongoing battle between filter drip and full bean ground coffee. Any place that acknowledges this schism will probably also serve up a robust cup of joe.

However useful these strategies may be, none of them form the basis of my café-picking policy. In Melbourne the best advice I can give for locating places with good coffee is find the most hipster looking place with the most hipster looking people, and you’ve probably found yourself a winner.

Seriously though, how much time would this take to do...

Now I am in no way a hipster, I love many aspects of mainstream culture, and not just ironically, but I do appreciate some of the things Melbourne hipsters get right.
1.       Their immaculately manicured beards, like seriously they are discomfortingly tidy
2.       Their love for foreign films, just because it isn’t in English featuring some major star like Johnny Depp, doesn’t mean it isn’t an amazing movie
3.       And finally their snootiness about coffee

I say snootiness with the greatest respect by the way

In a city where your standard cup of coffee is about 3,5-4 dollars (with another half a dollar added on if you are a lactard like me and need soy) you really shouldn’t be settling for bad coffee.

As I mentioned my partner is a coffee snob. He even uses a shorter more English sounding version of his extremely Swedish name when ordering coffee to make the process less of a hassle (a practice which I myself have begun to adopt). I joke that it is his hipster alter-ego ordering a flat white.

While many mock the hipsters (sometimes in self-defense due to the slight snooty scoffing that can sometimes occur when frequenting hipster cafés as a not so hip person) is true Melbourne hipsters often run and visit great coffee shops.

Brother Baba Budan
See what I mean about the random decor?

Now some of you who are not so familiar with the Melbourne hipster scene may be wondering how on earth you are to distinguish a hipster coffee joint from a regular one. Well a few things to look out for are, random object replacing standard furniture (things like crates or barrels), very distinct decoration like bikes mounted on the walls or large wall paintings, mason jars or other odd vessels for drinks and food, fancy looking sandwiches or pastries in the windows, organic juices on the menu, big sharing tables, bicycle parking in front, coffee distillers that look like out-of-place chemistry sets and slightly abnormal placeholders. In terms of guests/servers look for people wearing skinny jeans, thick rimmed glasses, mis-matched colours/patterns or possibly all of the above.

Chances are a place with most of these characteristics will have great coffee and you’ll never have to drink at Starbucks or Gloria Jean again.

If you are still unsure just check out this really cool map featuring a couple of the most hipster coffee places around.

Happy hunting!

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Post-Holiday Treat: Kettlebuns Recipe

Happy 2015 everyone.
I hope you all had lovely holidays and got a bit of a break from work and study.

Personally I really enjoyed the holidays. It was the first year I didn't have to worry about all transportation options for getting home being cancelled because of snow or ice.
No this year my parents came to visit me for the holidays which means I was lucky enough to be in a country that celebrates Christmas over summer, which meant my Christmas day was spent in shorts and a t-shirt checking out animals at the zoo and picnicking in the grass, slightly different from the usual eating Christmas Eve leftovers while watching the Grinch wearing 3 sweaters.

The one downside was the lack of home kitchen in which to cook an elaborate Christmas dinner. I mean eating out was nice and all, a good burgers and shakes is always appreciated, but I definitely missed the hustle and bustle of Christmas eve cooking, the turkey, cranberries, stuffing and la piece de resistance the buche de noel.

My holiday meal quota for the year was limited to Thanksgiving dinner, when my partner and I were invited to an american-australian thanksgiving crossover. All the typical requirements were met: good company and conversation, nice drinks, the traditional turkey, mash, greens, squash and pumpkin pie with the addition of a less conventional, though delicious, chocolate ripple bake. My partner and I were responsible for the dinner rolls, a job we took very seriously, no buying pre-made buns from a bakery or supermarket, good old home-made fare from scratch.

As I stated above the kitchen I have access to is not exactly the most reliable. For one it is being used by another 100 people (probably less considering i am pretty sure quite few of them cook). The temperature and humidity is not stable with doors being opened and closed at random, the oven and dishwasher being used sporadically. All in all not a great place to commit to baking something that requires anywhere from 3 to 6 hours of your day as any bread based recipe does. But, we were committed so the day of the dinner party came and we began our search for recipes.

We ultimately settled on Martha Stewart's dinner rolls recipe ( Mostly just because we were hungry at the time and the image looked nice. After reading the recipe it seemed easy enough, we had all the ingredients and 3 and a half hours was less time than most other recipes required (as we later found out this was because whoever wrote the recipe seriously underestimated the amount of time required for anyone who is not Martha Stewart).

We began our baking adventure around four hours before we had to leave for the party. After bringing together our dough and kneading it until it sprung back after a good prodding it was time to let it rise. Now anyone who has ever made bread knows that this is the moment of truth, the point when you find out whether your yeast was active and your kneading worked, it is the moment when your dough is meant to rise. Normally for a quick rise you have to leave your dough somewhere warm (not hot). As there was no-where reliably warm to put our dough and it was rising too slowly for us to be on time for dinner we had to get inventive and I came up with an idea. I decided to put the bowl with dough onto my desk next to a hot just-boiled kettle under a blanket. Sounds weird I know but it worked, the dough rose like helium filled balloon. We were able to beat the air out of it and separate it into rolls to let it rise again just on time to go to the dinner party.

If you don't believe that my technique worked here is a photo of the bread rolls once they were done. In fact when we got to the party the host thought we had cheated and bought our rolls, that is how good they looked, though his comment may have also been influenced by the box we brought the rolls in. As they didn't fit into any of our tupperwares we ended up using the box that my bath robe had come in. The fact that it was lined in baking paper and had a bit of plastic you could look in through apparently made it look like a baker's box.

Anyway lesson of the day: amazing food can be cooked anywhere with some determination, a little bin of extra effort and a whole lot of creativity.

- Annelies