Time in a Bottle

It’s been an inordinately long time since I last posted. It seems considerably easier to write when I’m travelling by myself. In addition to this I had a fairly major set back at the beginning of the summer of 2014 in Alicante, on the east coast of Spain. So, reflecting on this, here’s a a few pointers on how NOT to take a holiday:

1. Fly Ryan Air (although I must admit ,at this point, that I have done this since. So hard to resist those low prices! Naturally, they are low for a reason.)

2. Pack far more than you really need for the trip. Including vast amounts of valuables and electrics.

3. Proceed to leave all of you belongings in a convenient bundle, fully in sight. To save time, why not place an advertisement at the front of the property:

“passport, phone, laptop, travel money, wallet, ipod, extensive precious jewellery collection, kindle, SLR camera + telephoto lens. – available here at exclusively non-existent prices, simply time your arrival to ensure you can ‘purchase’ these items when the generous donor is absent. (crowbar not included)”

4. Run out for help barefoot in a towel on realising your donation has been accepted.

5. Have faith in the Spanish police

6. Have faith in the British Embassy

7. PANIC.

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However, I do feel that a certain amount of bad luck is inevitable whilst travelling. The key is how you manage it. Of course, it was not just me affected by this burglary, and without the help and assistance of the kind family I was travelling with I’m not sure how I would have managed. I let my guard down, feeling secure in this scenario, but I would have struggled significantly more had I been alone when it happened. I now believe I’d have a little more composure were it to happen again. It also is highly advantageous to have a helpful insurance policy. Swings and roundabouts, silver-linings etc etc

Now, as I had to withdraw from the delightful prospect of a following trip to Menorca, due to lack of passport, my next venture overseas was our family summer-break to Limoges, France. Shiny new passport in tow, we headed to a beautiful reconstructed barn complex where the entire side of my mothers family amassed for general chaos and frivolity (leaning a little more toward the chaos).

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An idyllic, tranquil part of France, with all of the trimmings you’d expect (great weather, food, pastries, markets etc). I’m going to swiftly move on, however, to the end of the summer. As a group of six school friends we headed to Lisbon for around four days to soak up some sun, some culture but more importantly each other’s company.

First thing that I feel needs to be said: be warned with luggage in Lisbon – it is extremely hilly! It is, However, a great little city to get away to for a short break. Very atmospheric and charming (helped, perhaps unfortunately, by the dilapidated state of many of the buildings). I’ll leave the explanation up to a small selection of photos. This post seems to be encroaching upon the ‘overly-long’ side of things so I’ll continue the catch up in a following edition!

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Dark Is The Night

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Bracelets given by visitors as a sign of respect for the dead.

Today we went through a tragically sombre enlightenment into Cambodia’s gruesome history. If, like I was, you are not fully aware of the terrors that have taken place here in the 70’s then prepare to be shocked. As a horrific example of the extent of human evil, the years 1975-79 under the rule of Pol Pot could rival the holocaust.

Pol Pot (born Saloth Sar) led the communist revolutionary party called the ‘Khmer Rouge’ who, after thoroughly sowing seeds of forced support for their regime in the countryside, took over Phnom Penh in April 1975, with Pot initiating his dictatorship and the concept of ‘Year Zero’: evacuating the entire city on the pretence of suspected American bombings. These evacuations were actually to push the population further into ‘Khmer Rouge’ territory and to help to stamp out capitalist habits. The people were then made to work in collective farms or forced labour projects inevitably resulting in malnutrition, disease and widespread death. Pot even claimed that only one or two million of the eight million population were actually needed to build his ‘agrarian communist utopia’. As for the others: “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.”

He initiated a mass genocide of any potential or conceived threats to the regime – stretching as far as all the educated individuals such as doctors, teachers and lawyers. All of their families were included (even babies and infants) for fear they may seek revenge themselves for the loss of their loved ones. In order to achieve his ‘utopia’ of a pure Khmer race he also banned religion and purged Buddhist monks, Christians, Muslims, disabled people, people in contact with western countries and any Chinese, Laotians, Vietnamese or ‘impure’ Khmers.

Some were put into the S-21 camp here in Phnom Penh where they were subject to obscenely inhuman torture in order to extract, largely false confessions. The camp is now know is the ‘Tuol Sleng’ Genocide museum where you can view the camp pretty much as it was left, with its miniscule cells and torture implements. The site was actually built initially as a secondary school which further heightens the sadistic nature of the use to which it was put.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Some of the many photographs of people kept in the 'prison'

Some of the many photographs of people kept in the ‘prison’

Barbedwire to prevent prisoners from attempting suicide to avoid further torture.

Barbedwire to prevent prisoners from attempting suicide to avoid further torture.

We were taken ten minutes out of the city to one of the ‘Killing fields’ sites. The ‘Choeung Ek’ genocidal centre is much like a Cambodian equivalent to Auschwitz. It was here that vast numbers of people were brought to be temporarily imprisoned then taken out in large numbers to be killed each night. Bullets were deemed too expensive to be wasted on the prisoners so they were instead brutally beaten to death kneeling on the edge of the mass graves with hammers, hatchets, axes or even with the serrated edge of a type of palm tree branch. Music meanwhile was played on loudspeaker to drown out the screams.

Skulls in the 'Memorial Stupa'.

Skulls in the ‘Memorial Stupa’.

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The Memorial Stupa displays the skulls, bones and clothes of some of the victims which have been excavated and presented on levels in this building for remembrance.

Walking around the site was a very sickening experience. We walked past graves labelled as ‘Grave of 100 women and children’ or ‘166 headless bodies’. Collections of skulls and bones had been excavated and presented in boxes or in the memorial monument.

Indochinese traditional 'house for the spirits'.

Indochinese traditional ‘house for the spirits’.

The Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre bracelets

The birdsong and sounds of children playing in the nearby school only heightened the eerie sense of the incomprehensible loss. There are 20,000 mass graves in sites like this one across Cambodia. The total death toll is said to be up to 3 MILLION out of a population of 8 million.  As Nassim Taleb points out in his book on uncertainty ‘The Black Swan,’ at this point it ceases to be a story or something we can relate to and merely becomes a statistic.

Apologies for this thoroughly morbid post – I’m simply sharing what I’ve learnt today. Unfortunately I have a feeling that this is going to be the thing that imprints itself the most in my mind from my brief stay in Cambodia.

In an attempt to lighten the mood I’ll carry on with a little more info about Phnom Pehn. It’s a remarkably easy city to navigate around. Highlights include the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda and Wat Phnom temple – you can find plenty of  beautiful temples and monasteries dotted throughout the city.

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For lunch I decided not to join my group in one of the many westernised cafés along the river front and headed instead to the buzzing local food markets in the back streets.

Phnom Pehn Food Market

As I’m on a budget, I’ve mostly been eating fried noodles with an egg and vegetables – served at most of the street stalls. Today I had a local Khmer rice noodle soup with a really bizarre plate of ‘salad’ to accompany it and some sort of dried ground fish sprinkled on top. Not too bad!

Khmer Food Phnom Pehn

Smooth Criminal

“In a closed society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught. In a world of thieves, the only final sin is stupidity.”
Hunter S. Thompson

It’s always difficult starting from scratch with a large group of new people. Today I left the Art Hostel and headed over to meet the tour group in ‘Lapa’. A few of us headed straight out to Ipanema beach after checking in. Rosie, a bubbly British girl travelling with a school friend, had her camera stolen yesterday from a teenager who actually grabbed the phone out of her hand. We therefore headed to the tourism police where we proceeded to wait for four hours for the office to sign a form which would allow her to claim it on her travel insurance.

Whilst we were there we oversaw a few interesting cases. A large number of people had had their individual bags stolen from the beach. A French couple had been waiting for their form to be signed for four hours. Just as Rosie’s form got to the top of the waiting pile a fairly elderly Italian Lady and her son came bursting into the station in their swimwear. The poor lady, in floods of tears, garbled out a flow of Italian whilst her son tried to explain in English what had happened: They had just arrived and had headed straight to the beach. The son had gone into the sea and two men approached the mother to ‘help her put up her sun umbrella. Apparently one man lowered the umbrella to the floor for a moment whilst talking to the lady. Meanwhile his accomplice was taking all of their belongings behind the screen of the umbrella. They lost everything: passports, phones, clothes…It’s made me feel even more paranoid about keeping two eyes on my possessions  My tactic has been taking out as little as possible (locking my valuables in a locker) and using a plastic bag in an attempt to seem inconspicuous. Also if you twist the bag and hold the top it’s practically impossible for anybody to get a hand in!

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Here’s a glimpse of the largest favela in Rio, which I did a walking tour around yesterday. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to talk a little more about this as it was incredibly eye-opening. For example, 90% of the performers/directors/composers etc in the Sambadrome come from the favelas. As our guide described it, it is the four days in their life when they can “feel like kings”

P.S. Not sure how easy it’s going to be to post over the next month as will be camping – often in the middle of nowhere.

P.P.S. If you haven’t stumbled across Hunter S. Thompson yet I would thoroughly recommendatory him. His wacky, original writing style completely won me over! Try ‘Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas’ or ‘The Rum Diary’.