Saturday, June 22, 2013














We left Toronto on December 27 of last year. I can hardly believe six months have blown by. I flip through my Instagram feed every few days, anxious to revel in what we've seen, to remember the colours of each place. I'm forgetting things already, a flashbulb memory nearly as exciting as experiencing it the first time around. I'll turn to Jeff and say, "Oh my god, remember that sea turtle on the Gilis?" or "Holy shit, remember how f'ing hot it was in Cambodia!?" 

Tomorrow we'll land on another continent. And guess what: I've never been to Europe. Ever. Not to London or Paris or Berlin. I've never been to Istanbul or Barcelona. I've never smoked a joint in Amsterdam or eaten loukoudmades in Greece. I've never been to Ireland or Scotland or Italy. And we're about to do all of that. The next twelve weeks are sure to fly by and all I can hope for is the clarity (and gastrointestinal fortitude) to see and eat and drink it all.

Our first stop is Athens. I want to consume my bodyweight in feta cheese, and those honeyballs, too. After just a few days in the capital, we'll fly to Mykonos to relax on the beach and check out the legendary gay scene. Much to our surprise, the hidden gay underworld of Dubai and Bahrain will be a tough one to top (pun intended); the down-low antics of Arabs definitely rival anything we see stateside. But that's a story for another day.

Then we're off to Istanbul. You may have heard about the current unrest, but it's (so far) contained to Taksim Square and seems to be avoidable. Istanbul is the second largest city in the world, by population (behind Shanghai) which I find very surprising and/or interesting.

After several months in hotels, Europe will see our return to the AirBnB circuit. We've booked great apartments in several cities and even a houseboat on a canal in Amsterdam (!!!). After our brief stop in Turkey we'll head to Paris to celebrate our 10th anniversary. Our itinerary has been designed so, every once in a while, we'll actually stop and smell the macarons. Quick one-week spurts, followed by longer, more restful visits. So we'll hunker down and get to know Paris in a quiet way. Picnics in the park, bike rides to the Eiffel Tower, wine and cheese for dinner - that sort of thing. We've also found that sitting still for a minute allows your budget to breathe. The transfers between places are financial spikes, so it's nice to get an apartment, fill the fridge with groceries, and slow down.

See you in Europe.


MAP BY PAUL DOTEY, PART OF AN ONGOING SERIES.


THE PLAN, LOOSELY
Athens > Mykonos > Istanbul > Paris > Berlin > Amsterdam > London > Edinburgh > Dublin > Naples, Rome, Florence, Cinqe Terre, Venice, Milan > Nice, Monaco > Barcelona > Marrakech > India > Home




CURRENTLY
LOCATION: The Amwaj Islands, The Kingdom of Bahrain 
DATE AND TIME: Saturday, June 22, 2013 11:00AM Arabian Standard Time/Saturday, June 22, 2013 4:00AM EST




Sunday, June 16, 2013












I'VE BEEN THINKING A LOT ABOUT MY IMPACT. On the world, on the people I love, on the people I decidedly do not love. I've thought about gossip and the way I talk to myself in my head. I think about how my face moves and how it makes people feel and I wonder, when I do nothing at all, how my energy affects things around me. In all the places we've been I try to smile at strangers and buy small tokens from locals. I eat more vegetables than I do meat, though that's likely a selfish endeavour as the quality is questionable at-best in these parts.  I move politely through other people's neighbourhoods and I've drawn the line at being pushed or pulled about town in a rickshaw propelled manually by a human. Because that just seems a bit colonial, no?

Siem Reap, Cambodia is a very sweet-natured place. After a month in Thailand, it felt softer and kinder, more approachable than the towns and cities we'd just visited. My shoulders relaxed and I felt at-ease for the first time in a while. I didn't feel the need to watch my back or my pockets and I smiled at strangers like we had back in Bali or I do when I wander the streets of Toronto. Just a passing smile, without the promise of a purchase or a transaction otherwise. I immediately knew this was a place I'd like.

As one must, we earmarked a day to see Siem Reap's famous temples. We hired a tuktuk for a reasonable price and Mr. Wan said we'd get started in the morning. If you know me, you won't be surprised to hear I loathe group tours and would always prefer to go it alone, so this was perfect. Mr. Wan would get us there (a quaint motorcycle-powered tuktuk 25 minutes outside of town) and provide informative tidbits, but we'd otherwise wander the landmarks on our own. In the morning we'd visit the smaller temples (Bayon, Baphuon, and Ta Prohm) before taking a break at the height of the day's heat, then head to Angkor Wat, the world's largest religious monument, in the late-afternoon when it was a bit cooler.

I'd heard a lot about Angkor Wat's affect on people. It was often likened to other vast wonders, like the Great Wall of China or Stonehenge. I wondered how it might impact me. As we purchased our tickets at one of a dozen wickets, my cynicism began to creep in. As we shelled-out $50 and joined a cross-parking-lot pilgrimage, I fell deeper into my disenchanted spiral. I read later that Angkor was now privately-owned by a company who rents it from the Cambodian government. Only 28% of ticket revenue actually goes back into the restoration and preservation of the site. I would estimate there were about 600 people at the temple in the hour we were there. And this was May: Cambodia's hottest month and lowest in terms of tourism, so imagine how much revenue is generated in the high season.

I always find it bizarre when people cheerfully pose for photos in front of monuments or sites, as if their presence in the photo somehow makes it more interesting. I mean, these places were built by thousands of slaves nearly 1000 years ago, they are literally crumbling under their own historical significance, and yet a man in an "I  Cambodia" t-shirt thinks his mug makes the shot.  Visiting war memorials or places moored by decades of horror is next-level mind boggling. I'm not sure flipping over a photo to read "Mom at the Killing Fields, 2013" is particularly necessary, and her wide smile and flippant pose verges on apologism.

As peace signs spread like wild fire, hoards of tourists scurried through the ruins behind a bellowing guide, his voice amplified by a squawking speaker box on his hip. Between these silly groups and the locals selling t-shirts inside the temples, the potential for a religious experience seemed laughable now. Then I began to notice how people had scraped their names into the sandstone walls or scrawled something in marker across an ancient bas relief carving. And I was done.

I wondered why I was here and began to feel like a major asshole. I, an agnostic at-best, was part of the problem, traipsing around these hallowed grounds which should be left to those who worship them. I felt terribly for the few people who had come from far and wide to quietly experience this place, the Mecca of Buddhism. On the rare occasion that I visit a Christian church, I stand quietly, careful not to disrupt the environment or the people there. But these temples have signs and arrows forcing you on a track, "This Way Please", and suddenly you find yourself standing, disrespectfully, at an altar or in an inner sanctum once reserved for only the most-devoted. Angkor Wat will be the last temple I visit and has changed the way I view all religious monuments. I will happily respect them from afar, but won't desecrate them by schlepping through, uninvited. 









A NOTE ON PHOTOGRAPHY

Photography has been an interesting stumbling block. I've mentioned I haven't been taking many photos, aside from those on my phone. Trips we've taken in the past have been fairly photography-focused, even buying people's cooperation with small toys or gifts, a bit of cash. I thought my impact could be balanced by giving something in return. But it hasn't felt right on this trip. Although I see dozens of faces each day that I'd love to photograph, I just don't want to risk making them feel uncomfortable, or, worse, commodified. I don't want to be the person who makes somebody feel like a zoo animal.

When we were in Bali we pulled over to the side of the road where a craggy-faced elder sat weaving a basket. I gestured with my camera and she waved her hands angrily, deeply offended. I attempted an apology and as we drove away I hoped she wouldn't feel shitty about that moment for very long. But if she's anything like me, she still does.



BULLETPOINTS

1) Cambodia has been welcoming tourism for less time and seem less over it than their Thai neighbours to the west. Prices are less inflated and haggling is less aggressive. More often than not, the price quoted is reasonable and doesn't require pushback. Which is a nice change.

2) Cambodia is the hottest place I've ever been in my entire life. Siem Reap is inland and in May (the hottest month) temperatures often exceed 50°C when factoring the humidity. 

3) Locals are very concerned with maintaining a light-as-possible skin tone and often wear many layers of clothing to block the sun. (Sunscreen is too expensive.) We cannot understand how people manage to wear jeans, socks, hoodies, scarves, face masks, and even gloves during the day. We could hardly stand a tank top and shorts in the extreme heat. It's an important status symbol: People with darker skin work outdoors and are often tradespeople or labourers. Light skin shows that you don't have to work in those environments. Long fingernails, even on men, work to prove the same point. 

4) Further to this, whitening creams are very common in this part of the world. It is said that 4 out of 10 women use them. Large international brands (who, ironically, tout individuality, self-esteem, and personal definitions of beauty in the West) provide all sorts of creams that work to lighten skin by inhibiting melanin production or with acids that exfoliate many layers of skin, revealing lighter skin beneath. Olay's most-popular product is called White Radiance and L'Oréal markets a line called White Perfect. A brand I didn't recognize (Franch) advertises their Shower Crème with a model who's face transitions from about a Halle Berry to a Jennifer Lopez in four easy steps. Another brand I didn't recognize (Lux) produces White Impress, with the tag line "Make the first impressions the ones that last." Yikes. 

5) The US dollar is the main currency in Cambodia. ATMs dispense large denominations of perfectly crisp, previously-uncirculated bills. It's a deeply-debated topic in the government, with many officials likening the proliferation of American currency to treachery. The dollar was adopted largely due to long-standing government corruption, distrust, and general terror during a half-century of turmoil in Cambodia. It was seen as stable where the riel was not. It's really fascinating and I encourage you to give it a Google.


CURRENTLY
LOCATION: Amwaj, Manama, The Kingdom of Bahrain
DATE AND TIME: Sunday, June 16, 2013 11:00AM Arabia Standard Time/Sunday, June 16, 2013 4:00AM EST


10-SECOND REVIEWS 

Location: Siem Reap, Siem Reap Province, Cambodia

Unlike the other countries we visited, we stayed for two weeks in just one town. On a trip like this, transferring between places really cuts into the budget. The longer you stay in one place, the less money you tend to spend. So, because we loved Siem Reap so much, we decided to hunker down and stay in one place a while. While two weeks might be a bit long for the average traveler, we found it super relaxing and comfortable. We rented bikes for $1 a day and rode out to the countryside every day after breakfast, seeing local communities and expanding our view of Siem Reap. 

Accommodation: Memoire D'Angkor 
Our first stop in Siem Reap was a lovely, quite-formal hotel in the centre of town. The service was great and our room was upgraded upon arrival to a giant suite. The hotel offered free laundry, which was a major perk and a nice touch. A great pool and very fast wifi.

When we decided to extend our stay in Siem Reap, we switched hotels to save a few dollars per night. The Golden Banana is a great spot with good service, nice pools and well-appointed, charming rooms. The food is good, too. It's advertised as gay-friendly and is gay-owned. There is a bit of confusion as several properties, all called the Golden Banana, were once one resort, but looks like they've been divided up. The link above takes you to the property we chose.

Food: There is no shortage of restaurants and bars in Siem Reap. Amok is my favourite local dish, a curry (often of freshwater fish) in coconut milk. Vaguely like an Indian curry, but with different spices.
For wine: The Station Wine Bar. Great prices, good selection. A nightly cabaret show is fun.
For western food: The Sun. Great chicken burgers and other familiar eats when you're feeling tired of local fare.
For cheap drinks: Viva is a Mexican restaurant with super cheap beer and $1.50 frozen margaritas. In the heart of the Old Market, it's a charming area and an easy place to kill an afternoon over serviceable $1 fish tacos and drinks.
For dinner: The Triangle Restaurant is an outdoor BBQ. Fresh meat, seafood, and grilled vegetables. Good food, great prices, fast service. A nice place to watch the world go by.



 RATING OUT OF FOUR BASED ON OVERALL EXPERIENCE.




Monday, June 10, 2013











After almost three months in South East Asia, we're moving on. At the mid-point in our trip we'll land, appropriately, in the Middle East. Our original plan was to head west, in geographical order, landing in India next. We knew it would be hot, but thought we could handle it; Cambodia and Vietnam have proven otherwise. It's prohibitively hot. So hot that entire days are lost to the comfort of an air conditioned hotel room. Where 45 minutes outdoors is too much. Where the two-minute walk from the sidewalk to one's room can soak your necessarily spaghetii-strapped tank top. And apparently India is even hotter. 

So, we'll end Eat, Gay, Love in India, pushing it to the back of the pack in October, when the temperatures (and monsoons) ease-up and when we can enjoy all it has to offer. Skipping over it now means landing in the Middle East in the middle of June, which is equally crazy, but here's what: Most everything in Dubai and Bahrain takes place indoors anyway. Air conditioning is a way of life there, and we won't be expected to schlep through a marketplace in the middle of the day. We can shamelessly hide indoors, venturing outside when the desert air cools at night. 

Our friend Joseph moved to Bahrain a couple of years ago to pursue his work in the film industry. He's made a great life there and we're excited to visit. We probably wouldn't normally include a stop in the Middle East if it weren't for him living there. It's a tough place to navigate without an insider, so we're looking forward to that. While it's not known for being gay friendly, Joe tells us the sordid details of the gay underworld, and it sounds rather scandalous. 

And so a quick trip will include the bright lights and gargantuan towers of Dubai and a week with Joseph at the seaside in Bahrain. We'll lay fairly low (though I need to see a desert and some camels) before starting the most-intense leg of this trip: Europe. We've become quite accustomed to an incredibly slow pace, meandering through each place leisurely, for a month in many cases. All of that is about to change. With only a week to devote to places like Istanbul, Berlin, Paris, and Barcelona, we'll need to get up early and pack our days full. We can't afford to lose a day to a Real Housewives marathon. (Who am I kidding. If we must, we must!)

A note on blogging: I've found it much more difficult than anticipated to block out time to focus here. In an effort to live the trip instead of document it, most of my writing takes place in the notebook app of my phone, quickly jotting observations or things I'd like to research further. I still haven't taken more than two photos with my real camera, and even shipped extra lenses home last week. I may live to regret that, but schlepping unused items (and paying for them in baggage weight) has proven to be a waste. The memories I'm gathering with my eyeballs, filing neatly in my quite-powerful brain, are worth a million shutter clicks. I have lots to tell you, from the mean streets of Bangkok, to the countryside of Cambodia to the chaos and excitement of Vietnam. Maybe I'll get to it on our rather long flight toward the Middle.


MAP BY PAUL DOTEY, PART OF AN ONGOING SERIES.

CURRENTLY
LOCATION: Hanoi, Vietnam 
DATE AND TIME: Tuesday, June 11, 2013 11:00AM Vietnam Standard Time/Tuesday, June 11, 2013 12:00AM EST