Being local
September 29, 2013, 7:01 pm
Filed under: asia, cambodia, culture, food, thailand, travel | Tags: , , , ,

Angkor Wat

Originally uploaded by cobismith.

Recently I had a mental shift . The shift corresponded roughly with the six-month point of my living in Chiang Mai, but I’m not sure if the shift was caused by time or actions. The actions were several people I know coming to visit, as well as strangers asking for advice about the city. With seeming suddenness, I became a local rather than a traveller.

This was in reality a more gradual shift, from my asking people for advice about locations or activities to being asked. Actually that’s not quite true – I still ask people for advice, and people were asking me within my first weeks, to which I’d reply I didn’t know. Now it’s different. Now I know things.

Now I know without looking at a map where I am in relation to the four gates of the walled city. Now I know not to park my motorcycle in a certain quiet lane on Sunday afternoon, as it will be overwhelmed by a market when I return. Now I have a degree of confidence in predicting rain, as opposed to the total bewilderment I felt when monsoon season began.

I still know only scraps of what there is to know about Chiang Mai, about Thailand, about life – but it’s noticeably more than I did before the mental shift. This shift creates a sense of mental space and relaxation that I didn’t have before. It’s letting go of the moment-to-moment switched-on buzz that comes from travelling somewhere new. Relaxing instead into the expectations and assumptions that create a sense of security and homeliness.

The contrast was evident when I visited Cambodia recently. I had an unexpectedly wonderful time there. The picture with this post comes from Angkor Wat, a place worthy of its world heritage status. I was fortunate to have time for a three-day pass to Angkor, giving me the opportunity to visit other sites in the temple complex.

I visited Ta Prohm, made famous by Tomb Raider, which I found to be in fact a friendly and fruit-laden temple, complex enough to be like playing a real video game in the manner of Myst. There was a young Cambodian girl entertaining herself by swinging from a thick vine, who I imaged to be a real young Lara Croft.

Most memorable was the day I awoke before dawn to begin the day meditating alone among sounds of bats and birds inside the heart of Bayon temple. Some people have asked how I organized it. It wasn’t a group – Angkor is vast enough that getting a tuktuk there before dawn ensures it’s simple to find a quiet space to start the day by yourself within the ancient buildings. I was initially on guard with fears about what I would find in the darkness. Once I’d settled in meditation, the sense of oneness and peace I felt with daybreak and birdsong was profound.

I also had an unexpectedly wonderful time in Phnom Penh, thanks to locals who shared their lives and knowledge. Sharing knowledge as a local can make the difference between a newcomer having fantastic experiences, versus mediocre or downright unpleasant ones. I am so grateful to those who shared with me their favourite dishes to eat or places to go out.

Now I’m back in Chiang Mai, happy to give back. Happy to share my knowledge of places and foods with newcomers. Happy to give that which I’ve received. Happy to give knowing that my knowledge is little, but sharing it brings me access to new knowledge and experiences tenfold. Sometimes being open to sharing comes back to me in ways I don’t predict, but the unexpectedness is what makes it so delightful.

For example, some newly-arrived neighbours I’ve become friends with shared news that a fish and chip truck now frequents one of my favourite local bars on weekends around dinnertime. When I arrived in Chiang Mai, that bar served no food, so I would rarely go there until later. Last Friday, I experienced what’s reportedly Thailand’s first mobile fish and chip truck (run by a Thai returned from England) while enjoying a drink at my favourite local bar. This was a delightful change to an established expectation about what happens in my neighbourhood. I know to expect such innovation and cultural fusion in Chiang Mai, but how that manifests I can’t anticipate.

I’m delighting in becoming a local, with different surprises and rewards to being a traveller. Same same, but different.


The Altiplano – don’t forget to breathe
July 12, 2010, 7:25 pm
Filed under: chile, culture, health, mountains, south america, travel, weather


Originally uploaded by cobismith.

For us, a big attraction of the north of Chile was the Altiplano. Santiago is interesting as a city, but it wasn’t what I expected from South America. I wanted llamas, mountains and colourful garb reminiscent of the Incas. Patagonia is freezing at the moment, but up north it’s warm enough to go surfing (with a wetsuit) on the endless beach at the frontier of Chile and Peru.

So up we came, with one adventure firm in mind – visiting the Altiplano. I was apprehensive, however, because the majority of my travel woes and general maladies result from pressure and balance challenges. Flying offends my sinuses, while rocking boats or winding roads distress my inner ear to the point of nausea. Thus I anticipated altitude sickness.

I Googled the altitude of past sickness-free mountainous trips with self-deceptive optimism, but French glaciers and Canada’s high lakes were more than a thousand metres lower than the Altiplano would be.

I prepared with natural and mildly pharmaceutical remedies. Plenty of garlic meals and clove tea to thin the blood the week before our journey up, plus aspirin on the morning. In the wisdom of my late twenties I’ve finally found a cure for my motion sickness: fresh ginger. When my powdered ginger tablets last ran out I realised I was paying more for a less potent form, which is harder to come by in foreign-language pharmacies as well. But I’ve found ginger itself universally available and unmistakeable, so I need only point or pick it up at the market. So on the bus ride up I had ginger in my pocket, an edible talisman to fend off the spirits of sickness.

This worked a charm for nausea, but not for the thinning air. As the bus ascended by hundreds of metres our drink bottles swelled, popping indignantly upon opening. We began yawning; I drank more of the expanding water in attempts to fend off headache.

The bus, destined for the dizzying heights of La Paz, reached Putre, our point of departure. We tumbled out with our bags into the sunshine and crisp rarefied climate, which seemed more translucent than at sea level. I felt I could touch mountains far in the distance if I reached out enough, my arm perhaps becoming more translucent and lengthening as it stretched. I stretched some more, boldly defying advice to move as little as necessary after ascent. But after being cramped in the bus my muscles demanded release. I slowly, cautiously, stretched my head down to my knees, breathing deeply, as yoga taught me. I felt triumphant. I was well! My body hadn’t betrayed me!

I sat on the bus stop bench, and I realised it was good that I had. Things were not quite right. My body was fine, but my head was light. I realised I was shaking a little, the stretching had exerted me more than it should have, at least in the air it was used to. I took another gulp of water and looked out again, my head swimming.

We waited some minutes before our guide arrived, in a car full of young blonde women. I’ve grown used to what’s normal here, so I felt startled and curious by the foreigners, forgetting that I too am foreign in the same way. Three Dutch girls jumped out onto the highway, nonchalant, tanned in that northern European way from the UV-rich mountain sunshine. The driver of the car looked anxious and ushered them to the side of the road.

“Are you sure you’ll be okay?” he asked. They laughed and assured him, confident in their trinity of youth and blondness. As a freight truck destined for Bolivia approached they stuck out their thumbs; the Andean driver put on his breaks, slowing in wonder. The three Dutch girls danced up to the driver and chattered in Spanish. It was the stuff of dreams – who needs cocaine to keep you awake when three exotic young women appear, as if stepping from a magazine cover, to keep you company on the journey? They departed.

My triumphant feeling of adventure had already vanished with my light-headedness and now was further muted; our adventure, a conventional bus trip and a conventional B&B, outdone by the hitch-hiking Dutchwomen. However with my system muted I felt recovered. It was true; exertion brings on altitude sickness.

Later in the day I discovered just the exertion of digesting lunch brought it back with a fierce thumping in my head. Our host suggested perhaps I go to the clinic to take some oxygen; stubbornly and proudly I insisted that I sleep on it and hope for acclimatisation by the morning.

I took some more aspirin, but the headache remained. As I lay on our comfy bed (where did the hitch-hikers sleep?) I thought about how we take for granted the oxygen at sea level, except when we dive below it and then come up for air. This was the same air, but too refined. Like watery powdered milk for starving babies without mothers, it lacked the nutrients to keep my system glowing.

I realised I was breathing shallowly. It occurred to me that perhaps it was little coincidence that yoga flourished in the kindred heights of the Himalayas. I practiced breathing deeply, fully, using my diaphragm. The bed covers rose higher and crumpled deeper with me. I resisted the urge to breathe in again immediately after exhaling, willing myself to lengthen the moments between whole breaths. After fifteen minutes my headache dissipated, and my mind sparkled with the feeling of learning something for oneself; the glow of understanding what had before been just words of wisdom. There was enough oxygen in this air, if you know how to use it.

I fell asleep content already with my trip to where the Inca shadow is long and Spanish is a thin veneer over proud, ancient cultures.

Ayamara winter solstice festival
June 26, 2010, 1:03 am
Filed under: chile, culture, dance, events, festivals, south america, travel

On Saturday evening we happened to be on the main street of Arica, 21 de Mayo, when we saw a suspicious number of people wandering around in intricately sequinned outfits or with feathered hats. I was compelled to ask a lady about half my height, but with a feathered hat that made us equal, at what time they were parading.

I knew there would be a parade because there are parades almost every day in Arica, as you might have seen if you keep an eye on my photostream. Sometimes it’s hard to discern what they’re for, though of late they’re mostly related to the World Cup.

The tiny lady with the large feathered hat confirmed that they would be parading in “about ten minutes” this can mean anything from in fifteen minutes to in a couple of hours, in reality. So we strolled along the main street anticipating a parade at some point.

We were not disappointed. Rather than a half hour flash in the pan as happens most days, this festival involved people dancing for four hours down the main street, and then dancing for late into the madrugada (Spanish for 1-5am). I’ve never seen so many astounding costumes or so many colours.

On Monday I discovered it had been an Aymara winter solstice festival. However it wasn’t just Ayamaran dancing (the Ayamara are one of the indigenous communities in the Andes near here). We also saw Tinkus, Marinera and even some African dancing. But these words will mean little to those outside of the region – here are some photos that will give an idea of the different styles.

My favourite was the Tinkus. It reminded me a little of Maori hakas but much more colourful and a bit less scary. But if I’d been a conquistador coming across some of these guys it would have been pretty intimidating.

This experience was my biggest South American cultural education so far, and it was completely free as well as hugely entertaining. South Americans know how to party and celebrate their heritage better than anywhere I’ve been so far.

Sweeping: a Spanish thing?
May 23, 2010, 4:03 am
Filed under: chile, culture, mountains, south america, travel

Santuario de la Naturaleza del Arrayán

Originally uploaded by cobismith.

I’ve noticed that Chileans have a thing for sweeping. I have vague recollections of the same thing when I was in Seville, so my feeling is it’s more a Spanish culture thing than Chilean per se.

Everywhere there are people sweeping. When I look out from our balcony, maybe once in every three times I can see someone on another balcony, sweeping. Yet to where do they sweep? The balconies are contained. You can’t sweep stuff off the sides. And why? We’re on the 22nd floor, there are no leaves. No mud should be trekked in from the doorway as balconies are on the other side of the apartment.

In the parks people are sweeping. It’s autumn, there are gorgeous brown leaves everywhere. Except on the paths. The leaves are swept off to the side of the path, so they no longer crunch beneath our boots, rather they sit in sad, damp piles, decomposing. Sometimes they’re swept into Hessian sacks, which sit on the sides of paths all the same. Swept, but left lingering.

On the footpaths people sweep. Council workers with brooms, sweeping the same five square metres of pavement for half an hour. Perhaps it’s Zen, like raked rockeries in Japan. Perhaps it just keeps unemployment down.

When we were in the mountains I saw a woman sweeping outside the perimeter of her rickety house. You can see a photo on the right. How futile, sweeping an ocean of red dust! Why does she sweep?

I don’t want to conclude that people are just passing time; surely they sweep for a reason. Surely?

Right under my nose
May 3, 2010, 3:16 pm
Filed under: chile, culture, food, santiago, south america, travel

Parque Balmaceda

Originally uploaded by cobismith.

We’ve spent the week exploring our local neighbourhoods, Providencia and Bellavista. It’s a ten minute walk half through park and half along highway (what a contrast) to the hubs of both neighbourhoods, in either direction.

On our first morning in Providencia we stumbled unexpectedly upon the local market, where they sold all the fruit and vegetables I could imagine, along with several I’ve never imagined before. We’ve become fond of a fruit that sits alongside the apples in supermarkets but is more like a small melon. It’s mottled white and green on the outside but on the inside is like a small, but sweeter, honeydew melon.

I love the way they handle pumpkins here. Rather than sell pre-wrapped portions, or opt for some dwarf variety, most market stalls and even supermarkets have one giant pumpkin. A customer asks for however much pumpkin’s desired and the grocer lops a chunk off with a giant knife there and then.

There’s also a bewildering array of grains and pulses. I was thrilled to get a bag of quinoa for about a dollar at the market, given that it’s typically several times that at health food stores in Australia. They also have puffed and honeyed amaranth as a breakfast option.

South America is lucky to have these excellent, whole-protein grains to call their own. So it could be a health food paradise – except fast food chains probably have more of a grip on the local population than traditional staples. As well as the typical Macdonalds and KFC there’s a fast-food chain called Schopdog, which sells hotdogs and revels in United States kitsch. Here in Chile guacamole comes with everything; hotdogs are no exception.

Guacamole or avocado salsa comes with everything because avocados are abundant. Tim was thrilled to discover you can buy them for a dollar fifty a kilo at the supermarket. Given we use avocado instead of butter (especially with vegemite on toast – try it!), having this staple so readily available is a one of those little things that make living in Chile worthwhile.

They eat late here, with breakfast nearly non-existant and lunch the main meal after 2pm. This took a few days to get used to, and one day we were hungry at 1:30pm after wandering since 11. We were in the heart of Providencia’s restaurant area but everywhere we asked said they didn’t start serving until 2. We resigned ourselves to eating at home, so walked back to our apartment with growling stomachs, imagining what we’d concoct with what remained in the fridge.

We reached the base of our apartment building and, still in the spirit of wandering, peered down the lane alongside. It was filled with upmarket cafes! Somehow we’d missed this every time we’d left and returned from the apartment thus far, as from the street the lane looks like it could be just a service entrance. I blame the jetlag on our lack of attention to detail.

Fortuitously it had just passed 2, so there was food and service galore. We sat down at a table where we could bask in the afternoon sun, where I had a vegetarian pizza (which was average, but I was hungry enough not to care) and Tim had a tofu and betroot salad, which was excellent. We also had fresh mint and pear juices served in beer glasses, which was a delightful combination I intend to repeat at home.

The best value vegetarian food we’ve found so far turned out to be right under our noses.

Bicycle at the nude beach
September 3, 2008, 1:10 pm
Filed under: beach, culture, europe, food, travel

Bicycle at the nude beach

Originally uploaded by cobismith.

My friend thought it would be entertaining to take me to a Norwegian nude beach. This was a bit of a misleading plan, because it was not much of a beach, and there were not many nudes. There were more surf life savers and bicycles than bathers, but that was okay by me.

Here I made the mistake of buying liquorice, despite my friend’s warnings. Unlike our soft and sweet liquorice, liquorice sold at Norwegian nudist beaches (and elsewhere in the country I’m told) is hard and salty. An acquired taste. I think of it as Scandinavian vegemite.

Oslo Opera House
August 29, 2008, 1:02 pm
Filed under: culture, europe, travel | Tags:

Oslo Opera House

Originally uploaded by cobismith.

From Denmark I headed up to the Norwegian capital to visit one of my friends from high school, who is now an engineer there. I went to Hafjell in Norway for the first time for my birthday in 2007 and absolutely loved it, so was keen to check out the capital. Norway is a country I would like to live in for a while at some point – if I can afford it!

One of the few things my friend who lived there hadn’t yet done was visit the new opera house. It was very stylish – but on the top, in the middle of summer, roasting hot, with so much white and metal and glare! There are lots of ‘watch your step’ signs because the surfaces and angles are a bit treacherous (kind of like the Australian parliament but with cement instead of grass).