Cambodia

Sunday, March 12, we arrived in Sihanoukville (Cambodia). We were greeted by our driver, “Mr. Temple” and our guide, “Mr. Lucky”.

Mr. Lucky was a sweet guy who told us a great deal about Cambodia’s history, present, and his life. The kind of guide you always hope to get, but seldom do.

Mr. Lucky was the youngest of 4 brothers. His other 3 brothers died during the Khmer Rouge regime. Fortunately he survived (hence his nickname). He taught himself English and became a travel guide. Now he supports his mother, and he’s engaged.

Mr. Lucky’s story is like a metaphor for Cambodia’s own recent history: without asking for it, it became entangled in the so called (by us) “Vietnam War” when the North Vietnamese used Cambodia’s jungle to smuggle into the South, to attack the South’s regime and later America’s troops. So the USA decided, without declaring war or any warning, to bomb the hell out of Cambodia, throwing the country and its people into chaos, which was seized by the shrewd and criminal Pol Pot, who enlisted young boys and teenagers from the countryside, many of them orphans after the American bombings, to create an army of violent children who were ordered to take people our of cities and into forced labor in the rice fields. The book and movie “The Killing Fields” does a great job telling the story, and there is a new one coming out this year.

[Tears run down my cheeks as I write these lines. Too many people have suffered too much because delusional egomaniacs decided to put themselves and their “cause” ahead of human lives and common good. Until when? When will we learn?]

That “experiment” cost the lives of over 2 million people. Those who were seen as part of the “ruling elite” (including doctors, teachers, lawyers, etc) were shot on the spot. Others followed: anyone who wore glasses, anyone who could read… But three years later Pol Pot realized the plan was unsustainable and people, those who did not starve, died of disease, or of overworking, were allowed to return to their cities and their previous lives.

Like Spain after Franco’s coup and the Civil War, Cambodia was sent back in time by the murderous campaign of a psychopath. And it’s still lagging behind Thailand or Vietnam, although the Cambodian people are resilient, and with over 50% of the population under 25 years of age, it has a good future ahead… if politics permits (more about that later).

We drove into Ream National Park: 210 Km2 (81 sq mi) with mangrove forest, freshwater wetlands, sea-grass beds, evergreen forest, beaches, rivers, and islands.

First we stopped at the Golden Silver Gulf and Bathing Beach. A beautiful beach that was full of trash. Which is what happens when your people are hungry and your priority is “survival”, rather than “conservation”.

After the walk on the beach we went to the rice fields, where women carried large baskets of cashews on their head, and men plowed the fields with the help of water buffalos, while tourists walked in a line, in the distance.

With a little effort and investment, that could be a paradise. But here is where politics get in the way: the Prime Minister of Cambodia since 1998, Hun Sen, is a very corrupt former Khmer Rouge member.

By controlling the media and violently suppressing the opposition, he has been in power for decades.
International aid and investment has been offered to Cambodia from many countries, but while almost all of them require the Cambodian government to agree to certain measures in return (advancement of democracy, openness, fight against corruption, etc), the Chinese offer their aid and investment without any requirement. So obviously the corrupt Cambodian government takes the Chinese money and pockets it without any qualms. Which means the Chinese influence is growing uncontrollably. For example: they just bought a beach in the Ream National Park to build a hotel and casino.

I was there to document the deforestation in the Ream National Park. It’s occurring in the “second row”, behind a first row of trees that hides the view of what’s happening behind it. You can’t see it from the roads, which are blocked by Chinese security guards. So we took a boat through the mangroves, from where I captured images (DSC_1271 and DSC_1274) of the deforestation.

When the international community denounced the deforestation, the Prime Minister denied it as “lies”. Then the UK ambassador obtained aerial pictures proving it, and met with the Prime Minister, who said: “we will look into it”. But as my pictures prove, nothing short of international sanctions will stop the corrupt Cambodian government and the Chinese from spoiling a beautiful natural treasure.

It’s a very common and sad story: poor countries, led by corrupt politicians, sell the only things they have, for short-term personal gains, leaving the country and its people stranded back in time and creating more long-term poverty that only leads to more instability and violence… Here’s one example: Cambodia’s land is very fertile. Vietnam’s was too, but the war savaged the country so much, that they need to make it fertile again. So Vietnam, with money made from rapid industrialization helped by both Chinese and Western countries, has bought land worms from Cambodia to make its land fertile… which is leaving Cambodia’s land less and less fertile.

Of course, the fauna is also suffering this deforestation. In order to document it, we went with the boat through the jungle into a wooden watchtower to look for endangered bird species from above.

The long and narrow boardwalk, with several boards broken, and others about to, leads to the most precarious man-made structure I have ever climbed. A slight wind breeze made the four-story tower sway quite noticeably. With every step the wood screeched letting you know that its days are counted and you could be the last one climbing it. Obviously, it was all worth it and the views from above were amazing. But also sad. We could only find a few endangered birds and nests when not long ago there were many.

After our visit to Ream National Park, we drove to Psar Ler market, where we saw many “exotic” (to us) fruits and foods. Some old ladies were cooking different dishes in the middle of the corridors, and following the suggestion of our guide, we had very interesting “cooked in shell” eggs, but could not stomach trying the 14-week gestated egg. He did.

We said goodbye to Cambodia by having late lunch on the beach: delicious vegetable “crepes” and glass noodles with king crab.

The beach was a big, public beach, frequented by both locals and increasingly low-budget tourist from China, Korea, and Europe. I could not help but notice the many “sexual predators” lurking. Middle aged Europeans walking up and down the beach, taking very young Cambodian girls (or boys) to dinner… it reminded me the case of the Russian oligarch who bought an island and was recently arrested for having 20 minors locked up in his room. His luxury yacht can still be seen in the Sihanoukville port, and access to his island by land bridge has been closed down, the crime being so horrific nobody knows what to do with that island.

We left Cambodia happy to have met wonderful people and visited amazing places… but sad that their past and current circumstances are so terrible, with a future that does not look too promising. Unless the international community does something about it. Which it won’t (as it won’t in Syria, Congo… and too many other places with even more tragic realities).

Back onboard luxury and safety, we attended a traditional music and dance performance by members of the Cambodian Fine Arts School, went out on deck to see Cambodia’s serene sunset one last time, while many colorful fishing boats and ferries kept the waters busy, and had a succulent dinner at Prego, the Italian specialty restaurant.

Hypocrisy? Not caring? Hardly. We have become aware. We already were, from books and movies, from TV and the news. But nothing like first-hand accounts to plant a seed of conscience that one day will turn into action. Even if remotely. As so many things are done today.
Thank you, Mr. Lucky. We will not forget.

Horse riding surrounded by parks

As we imagined, the highlight of moving to Wimbledon is being surrounded by nature.

On one side, 0.3 miles to the East, we have the family-friendly and very civilized Wimbledon Park, with its swans and ducks, water sports, minigolf, tennis courts… even beach volleyball!

On the other side, 0.3 miles to the West, we have the wild and lush dense forest of Wimbledon Common:

Adjacent to Wimbledon Common we have Richmond Park, with its live and free roaming deer. An excellent choice for horse riding:

Family road trip to Ithaca, Niagara and Thanksgiving in Buffalo

Since my parents were visiting from Spain, we decided to drive with them to Buffalo to spend Thanksgiving all together with my in-law family.

Wednesday, November 26 we drove over 400 miles (650 Km) through the snow storm from New York City to Niagara Falls. Well, my wife drove. I don’t think anyone else in the car could have managed all that snow and ice on the road, but fortunately she has a lot of experience with it, so while it took us four more hours than expected (and forced us to stop at a diner in the middle of the road for lunch, instead of making it to Ithaca as it was our plan), we made it across the Canadian border at Niagara Falls safe and sound. It was cold. -21°C (-6°F) to be exact.

The view of the falls from the hotel room was absolutely stunning. I can’t get over that view.

Before going to sleep, and to relax after such a long drive, we headed to R5, a nice lounge where they have “The Ultimate Cosmopolitan” (a $2,390 cocktail) and the “Martini-On-The-Rock” (a Martini starting at $10,000) in their menu. We settled for a more reasonable bottle of Malbec.

The next day we had a wonderful Thanksgiving at my cousin-in-law’s. Almost everybody was there, and we had an archetypal Thanksgiving early dinner, with humanely-treated-non-gmo-organic-fed-cage-free-happy-til-he-died-turkey, stuffing, six cakes (one of them a Jorge-approved new pumpkin-cheesecake recipe), games and fun, including playing turkey-trivia and cuddling two ferrets and two cats.

The following day we toured the Falls, and had a delightful lunch at the charming Prince Of Wales Hotel with my in-laws. On the way to lunch we stopped at Dufferin Islands, a secluded 10 acre park with several small islands connected by small bridges and footpaths. There we met a big flock of geese, seagulls and ducks. We also saw two beautiful cardinals staring from a safe distance. And as we left we spotted three wild red foxes. Amazing.

After lunch we walked around Niagara On The Lake, where we bought classic hats (quite convenient for a bald head like mine), and headed back to have dinner at Windows by Jamie Kennedy from where we watched the fireworks.

On Saturday, November 29, after a delicious breakfast at my in-laws, we drove back. My wife, knowing the area as well as she does, insisted on stopping at Taughannock Falls. While the path to the falls was all ice and quite slippery, it was totally worth it. So gorgeous! Impressively spectacular.

Once in Ithaca, after seeing a deer, a quick visit to Cornell University, and stopping at the Autumn Leaves bookstore, we had a yummy vegetarian dinner at the coop Moosewood Restaurant.

A wonderful Thanksgiving trip, full of precious memories.

Severe weather warning

Severe weather pamphlet and SMS alert

When, in the same week, you receive the “Ready New York – Hurricanes and New York City” brochure from NYC Office of Emergency Management via postal mail, and an SMS from “Emergency Alerts – National Weather Service” with the text “Imminent severe alert Flash Flood Warning this area til 1:00PM EDT. Avoid flood areas. Check local media”, you realize “you are not in Valencia any more, boy”.

That happened las week, and sure enough there were three days in a row of intense rain. At times it did seem vicious and crazy intense. But that was all. 

Hey, better be prepared than sorry. Thanks for the warnings! But there is not much you can do with Mother Nature except respect it. And perhaps go online and order a pair of Canadian rain boots 😉

Alaska Cruise Day 8: Seward to Anchorage

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All things must come to an end, and this amazing trip did too. We disembarked in Seward early, following an easy and relaxed procedure, finding our luggage right away, and boarding the transfer service that would drive us to Anchorage for the next three hours. But on the way we made a few “last stops” where we saw black and brown bears, moose, lynxes, oxen, elks, rain deers, bisons, eagles, owls…

We’ve had the perfect trip. Even the weather was amazingly good. A local woman told us they get four days a year over 70ºF, and this year they had two weeks! But that may have a hidden danger in the form of global warming. If anybody has any doubt why we should be careful with the environment, they should come to Alaska (or snorkel in Bora Bora, which is not a bad alternative) 😉

Alaska Cruise Day 7: Hubbard Glacier

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Before breakfast, we woke up to the sound of the ship’s hull breaking ice plaques in the water. The captain warned us that we were sailing next to Hubbard Glacier, so we got dressed in a hurry and ran to the observation deck (level 12). 

The glaciers were spectacular. Amazing. Breathtaking. And any other similar adjectives you can think of.

Their intense blue is due to the way they are formed: layers upon layers of heavy snow compresses the bottom, squeezing any tiny bubble of air out, until only pure ice crystals remain, glacier crystals, which are intense and beautiful blue.

It was freezing, but as we sailed closer and closer to the edge of the glacier, we all stood there, speechless (and perhaps also a little frozen), in front of the spectacle of nature. We saw several “calvings”, which occur when large chunks of ice from the glacier break and fall to the water causing a great splash, and heard very clearly the “white thunder”, caused by calving inside the glacier.

We were extremely close to the glacier, but the captain decided not to get any closer to avoid “shooters”, which are pieces of ice that fall into the water, and “shoot back up”, which could easily pierce through the ship’s hull. Nobody wants to star in Titanic II.

After lunch, Stephanie (blogweb sitetwitter) organized a galley tour, much to the delight of the few passengers that had the opportunity to join us. During the tour, executive chef Guido Scarpellini and his assistant Jerry Garcia throughly explained the clockwork process by which they, and the other 65 chefs onboard, manage to prepare a very wide range of dishes, including accommodating many “special requests”, while achieving a consistency and perfection that is hard to be found even in small restaurants.

A bottle of Jacquart champagne and a J.L. Godard movie was awaiting for us in our state room, to say farewell to Alaska and a marvelous cruise.